I’ve dropped small hints and what not, but haven’t really discussed in depth the work I’ve been doing the last several years in order to send my family on a trip for my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary.
If you’ve never done anything like this for family, boy, does it feel good to do! We had so many wonderful moments along the way. Taking my family to get their passports was an especial adventure and I loved how giddy they were. I’d say at least 50% of the fun was in the planning and giving them the trip.
On to the hacking!
I’ve worked mostly with American Airlines over the last few years to accumulate air miles. I was really lucky and opened an AA credit card for a 50,000 mile bonus just before they acquired US Airways, and then American changed from Barclay bank to Citibank, so I was able to get that sign up mile bonus of 60,000 as well! ALLL THE MILES.
I then spent the next 18 months or so, churning as many miles as I could. I did all the bonus programs, I bought everything I could on my credit card (provided I could keep it paid off) and made sure friends and family knew that were they making any purchases over $500 with cash, let me buy it for them! MILES!!
In the end I was able to purchase 3 coach and 1 first class ticket to Miami round trip for $11.20 in taxes per ticket. In addition, I was able to check 4 bags for free at a savings of $30 per bag, each way. I could totally travel with just a back pack except for medical stuff. Bah!
I knew we would need to fly in early and stay in a hotel for at least a day. So I did some research and applied for two different hotel cards. I received one, and it came with a 30,000 point bonus that was good for 2-4 free nights depending on the hotel. I used that to pay for our hotel stay and it was 100% free and I still have 1-3 nights worth of points remaining for a future trip that I’ll try to take this year, because I don’t want to pay the annual fee. I’ll close the account prior to that occurring.
Of note: I made sure to pick a hotel with free shuttle from the airport and to the cruise, to negate transportation costs. I tried to find one that had the free shuttle AND complementary continental breakfast, but failed.
While all that was happening I spent a good two years researching cruises and in fact, went on one for myself, but also to research it for the family. I settled on a cruise line, and then on a particular cruise for reasons too many to enumerate. Then I spent several months watching the prices, add-ons and bonuses, waiting to buy it at the best time.
I secured a balcony room for four, with taxes, port fees, and prepaid tips for under $2,800. This included several bonuses that added to the value. I felt very good about this cost, and with the airfare being nearly free, and the hotel being completely free, felt that this was a good all-in cost.
Now, this all occurred and then finances went to poo in 2019, if you recall. I have zero regret about this trip/purchase, but did learn an important lesson that I have taken to heart. I will never finance a trip again. I assumed life would continue and my income would be normal. Had it been – the cruise would have been paid for before we took it with 0% interest. Due to all the many complicated things that occurred the first quarter of 2019, that is not the case.
While I saved loads of money and did this trip for my family and experienced zero regret it will be a few more months before I pay it off. Especially because just before the trip I was given the option to upgrade to an $8,000+ room for $1,400.
Yes, we could have stayed in the 287 sq ft room, but this is likely to be the only family trip we will ever take. It’s the first time we’d flown anywhere together, and it may never happen again. I didn’t want to look back and see how we were driving each other nuts and didn’t have a good time being penned in, when for just $1,400 I could have made the trip awesome.
AND. IT. WAS. AWESOME.
We had a 2 bedroom, 2 bath family suite with balcony. The suite was gorgeous and over 800sq ft. It was worth every penny just to see my mom’s face and hear her gasp when we opened the door. It was beautifully appointed, with a jetted tub and a shower with multiple heads. We had an espresso machine in room and our own BUTLER.
One of the best benefits of being in a suite is that we avoided all the many lines. My father is disabled and has had several back surgeries (that’s why he was in first class, so he could recline for his back) and my mom suffers from nerve problems in her legs that make it hard for her stand or walk long distances. They make it work, because what other choice do you have? But I knew the 90-120 minute long lines to get on the ship, off the ship at ports, and disembarking would be difficult for them. This avoided that all together. We were immediately checked in with no line and personally escorted to our suite. At port, we were escorted off the ship first, and quickly. When we disembarked it took less than 5 minutes to get off the ship. It took me 2 hrs when I went last year.
Saving those spoons is important when you are disabled. It enabled them to have spoons/ energy left to get off the ship into Belize and participate on ship more. It also is just one example of the financial cost of avoiding pain due to disability. Dad could not have flown coach, because of his back. Sitting is the worst position in the world for him and he did it for 10 minutes to para sail with me. I know the cost of that for him. Thankfully, I had enough miles to upgrade him, but that prevents him from traveling because of the increased cost. Just a thing to think about friends.
We had a wonderful time on the ship and off. Belize was beautiful and I parasailed! I used to think I was afraid of heights until on day I realized that I wasn’t really afraid of heights – I was afraid of falling – and I consider those two different things so parasailing was perfect. I would do it again 100%. I also want to say that for anyone with disabilities: back, legs, hands – it was very easy to do. I didn’t need to have balance skills (which we know I don’t have) nor strength in my hands. The lift off was gentle, and the set down was taking a step on the ship. I think many physical disabilities could be easily accommodated in order to allow access to this for all. Think about it. I had a blast!
We really had a terrific trip and I have zero regret about the work, energy, and money that went into it. I will get it paid off over the next several months, and then attack what is left on the debt from having to finance living expenses for 6 weeks, and what remains from Grape face and her illness. I’m very sure that I can get through it this year with some tough love and austerity.
In the meantime, I’m planning my next round of hacking to cover airfare for myself and my bestie to Scotland next year. Edinburgh – here we come! 🙂
If it isn’t clear – travel is important to me. I would never advocating acquiring debt to do so, and I will never do it again, but I also made the decision a couple years ago that I won’t put off traveling for later. There may not be a later for me. With multiple degenerative chronic illnesses my able time is finite. Right now? I can travel alone with little accommodation and provided I carry an extra bag full of medical equipment and meds. None of us knows what the future holds, but I will get worse. It could be 10 years before I can’t travel alone. Or it could be 20. Or it could be 5. I don’t want to regret not doing the things while I can.
I have struck a balance and agreement with myself. No debt for travel. One or two trips a year, based on what I manage to hack.
One regret I do have is that most of my travel is international. Don’t get me wrong – I am so glad to see all the places and they ARE on my lists, but travel in the US is so expensive that I’ll likely not see Boston, Washington DC, or Philadelphia. I can travel in Europe (with a friend) for $25 a night. Can’t do that here. I went to England and Scotland three years ago for 8 days, and the entire trip – airfare, accommodations, food, transport, EVERYTHING, was just over $500.
Who knows, though? Maybe I’ll make it work and do some more hotel hacking. I’m always learning new things!