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Southwest

Don’t Mess With Texas – Austin Logistics

Off To Austin

This weekend, my Cousin and I are going to Austin, TX!

I have never been to Austin and have heard it is suppose to be pretty cool (and a little batty), so when my Cousin suggested going, I said why not!

Coincidently, there is also an Austin DO going on this weekend. So hopefully we will have time to drop in on that!

Flights

My Cousin lives in Seattle and I live in Chicago.

When we started looking for Flights, we noticed a trend for flights going to Austin…..they were all very expensive.

For a flight from Seattle to Austin, the cheapest I could find was on United for $349, which isn’t terrible.

Since Chicago has 2 major Airports, I thought that a ticket to Austin should be fairly cheap. Boy was I wrong…

The absolute cheapest flight I could find was on US Airways for $583, but that flight had a stop in Charlotte.

For a non-stop flight, the cheapest I could find was on American Airlines for a whopping $828!

This is where doing some “long range planning” and actively accruing Frequent Flyer Miles (even if you don’t have a trip coming up), is extremely useful!

The mistake most people make is that they wait until after they have a destination in mind to start earning Frequent Flyer Miles.

The problem with that is you are kind of playing with fire. If your Miles don’t post in time or the lower level Award Tickets get sold out, you are screwed!

In my case, we decided to book this Austin trip on a whim about 30 days ago. As you will see below, I ended up using Southwest Points. When I earned all those Southwest Points last year, I had no idea I would be using them for a trip to Austin. I got them solely on the basis that sometime in the future, I would be going somewhere in the U.S, and I would need some Points.

South By On Southwest

Although I am not a fan of Southwest’s Boarding Policy and lack of TSA Pre-Check, over the last few months I have become a Southwest Evangelical due to their Honey Roasted Peanuts, 2 Free Checked Bags, no Change or Close-In Ticketing Fees, and variable Award Ticket pricing model.

If you don’t have a Southwest Credit Card, I HIGHLY suggest thinking about getting one because the 50,000 Point offer is back again! As you will see below, with Southwest you can really stretch those Points out for a few free flights!

Link to Southwest Card

With Southwest, it is always a good idea to book your Flights (Paid or Award), as early as possible because the prices are typically cheaper AND you can always make changes or cancel your flight for FREE!

That being said, we only booked our tickets last month and still got a phenomenal deal.

For my Cousin’s ticket from Seattle, the cost was 11,879 Rapid Rewards Points & $10 in taxes.

For my ticket from Chicago, the cost was 21,839 Rapid Rewards Points & $10 in taxes!

Since my Cousin’s ticket was so cheap (in terms of Points), I just ended up paying for it since he doesn’t have any Southwest Points.

The neat thing about Southwest is that for 2 Tickets, I only spent 33,718 Rapid Rewards Points & $20 in taxes.

That may sound like a lot BUT had I booked the exact same flights on United or American Airlines with Miles, it would have cost 25,000 each (or 50,000 Miles total) PLUS $75 each in nonsense Close-in Ticketing Fees!

So in my mind, paying 33,718 Points & $20 was a steal for 2 tickets, compared to 25,000 Miles & $75 for 1 ticket on AA or United!

Hotels

Since it is just me and my Cousin going to Austin, we were content with “slumming” it up in a Hostel since they are usually a great place to meet people.

As a point of reference, the last time just me and my Cousin did a trip together, we went to see Dave Matthews Band at the Gorge outside of Seattle and stayed in a Smoking Room at Motel 6. So at a minimum, staying in a Hostel is definetly a step up from last time. Plus at a minimum, even if it sucks we will have some good stories to tell.

Unfortunately there is only 1 good Hostel in Downtown Austin called Firehouse Hostel.

We ended up booking 3 nights there in a Private 2 Person Room for around $80 total a night, which is pretty good deal.

Well last week (or approximately 8 days before Departure), Firehouse Hostel sent us an email saying they had some “unforeseen” renovations so we could only stay there 1 night instead of 3 nights.

Coincidently SXSW (South by Southwest) also starts next week and not surprisingly the prices for Hotels & Hostels coincidently go through the roof. I am not saying there is a correlation but it is EXTREMELY suspicious…

Anyways as “compensation” for having to find a new place to stay for 2 out of the 3 nights we are in Austin, we were offered a $20 credit at the Hostel Bar. And no, that is not a joke…

So with 8 days left to Departure and SXSW pushing Hotel prices thru the roof, I spent last week scrambling to try and find some affordable Hotels.

Originally the plan was to try and unload some Hilton Points in anticipation of the pending devaluation. The only problem is that my 140,000 Hilton Points are currently in the form of 70,000 Hawaiian Miles and it takes 2 weeks to transfer them over to Hilton.  I am not sure if Hawaiian Airlines physically walks the Miles over to Hilton or what, but since we only had 8 days, that option was off the table!

Friday

For Friday, there were literally no good options.

For example, the W Austin was $449 (pre-tax) with no standard Free Nights Awards or Cash & Point options available!

I ended up burning one of my Radisson Free Night Certificates for a free night at the Radisson Hotel & Suites in Downtown Austin.

To earn the Free Night Certificate, I had done a few $100 Mattress Runs last year at Raddison in anticipation of situations like this.

Redeeming the Certificate turned out to be a pretty value because for my $100 that I spent last year, we got a room that retails for $297.85 this year!

Not a bad return on investment…

Saturday

For Saturday, we are staying at the Firehouse Hostel in Private 2 Person Room for $80 total.

Although not everyone likes Hostels, I find that if you are young, Hostels are the way to go because you can meet other random travelers who like to go out.

Hostels also typically have walking tours and nightly activities planned, which can be useful if it is your first time visiting a City.

Sunday

For Sunday, I used the Radisson Friends & Family trick I talked about last week.

Using the Friends & Family rate, for $97 (after-tax) we are getting a room that retails for $274 (after-tax)

Had we been given more than 8 days notice, than we could have just booked all 4 nights here using the Friends & Family rate! However, with such short notice, Sunday was the only day that the discounted rate was still available.

Monday

I wasn’t able to find a good deal at any other Downtown Properties during the week because all the rates started going up in anticipation of all the SXSW people.

In the end, I burned 7,000 Starpoints and booked the Austin Sheraton.

That ended up being a pretty good deal since the Austin Sheraton was retailing for a whopping $320 a night!

Recap – Don’t Mess With Texas FFU

Although our original lodging plans ended up falling through, we ended up making the best of a bad situation and found some pretty good deals. This is especially true if you factor in what short notice we were given and how close it is to SXSW!

All in all, our 4 day trip to Austin will cost the following:

  • 2 Flights: 33,718 Southwest Points
  • 2 Nights At Radisson: 1 Free Night Certificate (Paid $100) + $97 Friends & Family Rate
  • 1 Night At Hostel: $80
  • 1 Night At Sheraton: 7,000 Starpoints

So around 40,718 Points & $277 out of pocket, which is pretty reasonable.

If we didn’t have Points or Miles, it would have looked more like the following:

  • 2 Flights: $349 (Seattle) + $583 (Chicago)
  • 4 Nights At A Downtown Austin Hotel: $1,200

So needless to say Miles & Points really came through and saved us quite a bit of cash!

All in all, it should be a really fun weekend and at a minimum, there wont be any snow in Texas!

If you are interested in following along on our little adventure in Austin this weekend, feel free to follow me on Facebook & Twitter.

-Parag

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Las Vegas & Vdara Trip Report

For the Super Bowl this past weekend, I was in the Adult playground that is Las Vegas.

What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas………..unless of course you happen to write a travel blog!

Flights: B+

For our Flight to Vegas, as I talked about last week, I booked 2 tickets on Southwest for 20,000 Southwest Points each. This was truly an exceptional deal because last week, the price shot up to over $1,000 per a ticket! So for 40,000 Southwest Points, we basically got $2,000+ in free tickets!

This was my first true “long haul” (aka more than 2 hour) Southwest Flight, and like any airline Southwest definitely has some positives and negatives.

Positives

  • Frequent Flyer Program – As I have talked about many times before, with Southwest you can take Award Flights that would normally cost 25,000 Miles on United, for as low as 10,000 – 12,000 Points. It is unreal!
  • 2 Free Checked Bags
  • Companion Pass 
  • Free Changes and Cancellations

Negatives

  • Boarding Process – With Southwest, you are assigned a Boarding Position based on when you Check-in. We got stuck in Group C both times, which is the 2nd worst Boarding Group.
  • No Assigned Seats – When traveling by yourself no assigned seating isn’t a big deal, but it can be really annoying when you are traveling with someone else and you can’t find 2 seats together.
  • No TSA Pre-Check – For some reason or the other, Southwest doesn’t participate in the TSA Pre-Check program! So even though I am pre-cleared by the TSA, because Southwest isn’t part of the program, I had to go through regular security and got my Safety Razor Blade confiscated again for no reason. 

Going to Las Vegas, we departed Chicago’s Midway Airport at 7PM on a Friday and landed in Vegas at 9:30PM, so not surprisingly everyone was drinking on the 4 hour flight there.

Southwest is fairly “lenient” in their beverage policy, basically you pay once, and then re-fills tend to be free. So I paid $5 for my first drink, and then got 2 more for free!

Also Wi-Fi on Southwest is extremely reasonable, as I believe it was only $8 for the flight. On a 4 hour flight, that is only $2 an hour! Looking at the iPads around me, surprisingly they didn’t block access to YouTube or Netflix!

Vdara: B

After arriving in Las Vegas at around 9:30PM on Friday Night, we collected our bags and took a Taxi straight to our Hotel.

Since the Airport is fairly close to the Strip, a Cab only cost around $17 including tip. One thing to note though is that Cabs love to take the Tunnel to the Strip since it drives up the fare cost. You have to explicitly tell the Driver NOT to take the Tunnel or they will try and get an extra $10 out of you.

Our group of Friends had already arrived at the Vdara Hotel earlier in the day, so they had already checked-in when we arrived.

As I talked about last week, the Sandwich Trick is extremely common practice in Las Vegas. When my Friends checked-in, they slipped the Front Desk Agent a $20 for each Room, and asked if there were any “Complimentary Upgrades”.

It must have been our “lucky day” because just like that 2 “Complimentary Upgrades” to an Executive Corner Suite became available. I wish this policy worked at all Hotels!

For $40, it certainly wasn’t a bad “investment” because the Executive Corner Suites was 2 Categories higher than what we had originally booked and was going for $350 a night.

As for the actual Hotel, for those of you that have never been to Vdara, it is located in the City Center Plaza  next to the Aria, The Cosmopolitan, and is connected via a pathway to the Bellagio.

What makes Vdara fairly unique from most Vegas Hotels is that it is all Suites, non-smoking, and non-gambling. It honestly looks and feels like a luxury apartment building.

Although the non-smoking and non-gambling part may be a turn off for some Vegas visitors, I found it nice because to get to your Room, you didn’t have to walk through the massive Casino floor and reek of smoke. However at the same time when you wanted to gamble, you could walk next door to Aria or Cosmopolitan and indulge.

Room: A+

For the 6 of us, we booked 2 Suites. One for the Guys and one for the Girls. 

The total price was about $150 a room per a night plus a $25 resort fee which included internet. When you divide it into 6, it came to about $50 a person a night.

The Rooms were located on the 31st & 34th floor, so both Rooms had great views of the Strip.

Each Room was around 850 Square Feet and extremely spacious. The full floor plan can be seen here.

Having such a large Living Room area was great when we all met to pre-game before going out, as we could easily fit 6 people in the room and could use to fridge to keep drinks cold, etc.

Also you could hook up your iPhone to the TV and play music which was nice.

In addition to a separate Bedroom, and Guest Bathroom, there was also a full Kitchen with fridge, stove, etc.

The Suite also had Windows all around the room. Needless to say the views of Las Vegas were simply stunning!

Bedroom: C

While the size and layout of the Suite were great, as my Friend / Flyertalker Eric pointed out, “Las Vegas Luxury Hotels are for people who have never stayed at an actual Luxury Hotel”

While that does sound extremely snooty to non Frequent Travelers, the point is that while Vdara got the layout of the Room down perfectly, all the little things that separate a true Luxury hotel were completely missing.

For example, the Suite came with 1 King Bed (that my Cousin and I shared) and a Sofa Sleeper.

On the night stand, the Hotel was quick to point out that the Mattress was a Sealy Plush Top and could be purchased for your home, etc. However when went to sleep, either it was just a terrible mattress or had been used way too much because it had no support.

My Friend Eric slept on the Sofa Sleeper and although Sofa Sleepers aren’t suppose to be an actual bed, I honestly have no idea how he managed to sleep on that thing because it was just pure springs.

If that is how the Sofa Sleeper was meant to feel then Vdara would be better off not even mentioning it and invite Guests to just sleep on the actual Sofa, since that would be more comfortable. 

Bathroom: B+

Similar to the Room layout, the Bathroom was extremely spacious and was probably my favorite part of the room.

While the Bathroom felt extremely classy and grand, the Bathroom Amenities were terrible and equivalent to something you would find at Holiday Inn.

In addition to the Shower and dual Sinks, there was also a Tub with just a ridiculous view.

Las Vegas Review

While our Suite at Vdara was fairly nice, the real excitement of Vegas was to be found on the Strip!

Friday

On Friday Night, as soon as we arrived at Vdara, we changed clothes and started indulging in some libations.

For Dinner, we went to the Cosmopolitan for a quick slice of pizza at The Secret Pizza Place (Yes, that is the actual name). It was absolutely delicious and probably one of the best slices of pizza I have ever had.

After eating, we headed to the Wynn Encore to a club called Xs (or Excess as I was improperly calling it).

Since there were just 4 dudes in our group, there wasn’t any way we were getting in without some help. Conveniently right at the entrance of the Encore we met some guy who was a Club Promoter and got us in right away without having to wait in line for about $40 each, which happened to be what the Cover actually was.

Although I was not pleased having to shell out $40 just to get into a Club, followed by $20 per a drink, at the end of the day it is Vegas so you don’t really have a choice.

Overall I honestly wasn’t that impressed with Las Vegas Clubs. For how much they charge in cover and how much everyone talks up these places, I was expecting Ibiza style clubs that hold 10,000 people but to my surprise they were all fairly small.

Saturday

As part of our Suite deal, we got 2 Free Buffet Coupons per a Room which were good at almost any MGM Buffet. I am not a big buffet person, but since it was free we headed across the street to Aria to their buffet, called The Buffet.

Normally it is about $40 a person for The Buffet, so we saved $120 for 3 of us.

Only in Vegas would there be a 45 minute wait to get into a Buffet…

The Buffet definitely had more selection than your average Buffet but the quality was what you would expect to find at a Buffet. The one positive was that it was only $7.99 for bottomless drinks!

After The Buffet, we walked thru Aria and decided to play a little Blackjack.

I have never gambled before, so it took a while to get the hang of and I quickly realized how addictive gambling can be.

I bet $100 and ended up around $100, so we decided to take our winnings and run.

For Dinner, through the AMEX Platinum Concierge, we made reservations at TAO.

I have been to the other TAO in New York City twice, and both times it has been amazing. Not only is the food outstanding, but the ambiance is fairly stunning with a 30 foot Buddha statue in the middle of the Restaurant. 

The cool thing about TAO Las Vegas is that there is a Club attached to it, so if you eat at TAO, you get automatic free entry into the Club. Since cover is probably $40 anyways, it makes much more sense to eat at TAO and spend $60 rather than spend $40 just to get into the Club.

While we did have a reservation, they made us wait at the bar for 30 minutes for no reason, so the 1st round of drinks was conveniently comped for the entire group.

Since there was a group of 6 of us, we ended up splitting a bunch of dishes and everything was absolutely amazing. I don’t remember exactly what we got because I didn’t order it, but it came out to around $50 a person including drinks which was extremely reasonable.

If you are ever in Vegas or New York City, I highly recommend going to TAO. You will not be disappointed.

After Dinner, we went up to the Club at TAO, which again I thought was kind of small but still fun.

Sunday

Since Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday, my Cousin and I decided to watch the game at the Sports Book at the Bellagio.

I am not a die hard Sports fan, but it was awesome watching the game surrounded by people with tons of money on the line because they were so passionate about every single thing. For example, I have never heard that many people cheer for a coin toss!

Also it was pretty amazing seeing how ridiculous some of the bets were. My favorite bet was what color would the Gatorade be when they dumped it on the Coach.

Since the Game was pretty close, it was definitely a nail bitter until the very end when the Ravens won.

After the Game, since it was our last night in Vegas, we decided to go to Lavo for Dinner in the Palazzo Hotel.

Lavo is owned by the same people as TAO, so it was the same deal in where if you eat at the Restaurant, then you get into the Club for free.

Honestly Lavo was probably one of the best Italian meals I have ever had!

Between the 3 of us, we got Kobe Beef Carpaccio, Veal Parmesan, Black Truffle Gnocchi, Kobe Meatball, & Spaghetti Carbonara.

Including 2 bottles of wine, it came out to $100 a person but well worth every penny!

Recap

Overall while Vegas was fun and I highly recommend everyone do it once, I am not sure if ever need to go back.

Most times when I go traveling it is to see new sites and explore new cultures. While gambling, clubbing, etc are fun, most of that stuff I can do in Chicago without having to fly 4 hours.

Honestly the one thing I really enjoyed the most about Vegas was the food. Every single meal I had was delicious!

As for our Hotel, for the price we paid, it was great and served it’s purpose.

I’d highly recommend Vdara if you are going with a Group, Family, or are a Couple, because for the price you get an exceptional amount of space. Just don’t expect it to be a 5 Star Hotel!

-Parag

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Las Vegas Logistics – Flights & Hotel

This upcoming weekend, I am going to Las Vegas!

I haven’t been to Vegas since I went with my Parents in Highschool when I was still under 18, so needless to say, this experience should be vastly different.

We are going with a large group of Friends / Family from all over the Country, not to mention that it will be Super Bowl Weekend, so it should be a pretty pretttty good time!

Flights

For the flights to Vegas, as I talked about last year, I booked them on Southwest.

People love to hate on Southwest, but the value you can get out of Southwest Points is absolutely astonishing!

If you don’t already have a Southwest Card, I highly suggest getting one.

I got 100,000 Points by signing up for the Southwest Personal and Business Credit Cards. At a minimum, that will get me 6 free flights.

Unfortunately I messed up getting my Companion Pass, but if you do it properly, you can get a Companion Pass good for 2 YEARS and you can even use it with Points, which basically doubles the value of your Points!

For 2 Non-Stop flights to Vegas from Chicago, I paid 40,680 Southwest Points, or about 20,000 Points each.

Had I used United Miles or AA Miles for an Award Ticket, at a minimum it would have been 25,000 Miles each (50,000 Miles Total), so right off the bat I saved 10,000 Miles by going with Southwest.

If I didn’t have any Miles and had to pay out of pocket for the ticket, the cheapest Non-Stop Flight was on AA for a whopping $694. No thanks!

The best part about Southwest besides free checked bags, is that there are NO Close-In Ticketing Fees, or additional fees to change or cancel your ticket!

So we were all originally planning on going over Martin Luther King Weekend but our plans changed, so I just changed the tickets to this upcoming weekend and didn’t have to pay anything extra to make the changes!

Absolutely unreal since on any of the Legacy Carriers (United, AA, Delta), it would have been at least $150+ Change Fee PLUS $75 Close-In Ticketing Fee PER A TICKET!

Basically by signing up for just 1 Southwest Card (which got me 50,000 Southwest Points), it allowed me to burn 40,000 Southwest Points for 2 Award Tickets and saved me around $1,400 on Flights!

Hotel

As I wrote about last year, there aren’t that many Chain Hotels on the Strip (Like Starwood, Marriott, Hyatt, etc), so more than likely we would have had to pay out of pocket anyways.

For the Hotels, since we are splitting the 2 Hotel Rooms between 5 people and the flights are free, we decided to splurge a bit and stay at Vdara.

Vdara is located in City Center and is owned by the same Company that owns Aria. The only difference between the two properties is Vdara is supposedly all “Suites”.

We were originally going to use the awesome Virtuoso program because it was the same rate as the Hotel’s Website and you got added perks like Breakfast Credits, Resort Credit, Upgrades, etc.

In the end, my Cousin works for Expedia, so we booked the Rooms via his Corporate Discount which basically got us the Rooms at cost (what Expedia pays for the rooms).

For 2 Deluxe Suites at Vdara, we are paying around $900, but we are splitting it between 5 people, so it will be around $200 a person for 3 nights.

Had we booked via Vdara.com, it would have been $1,225, so we are saving around 25%.

Of course since it is Vegas, we will OBVIOUSLY make all our money back gambling ; )

Although Vdara is kind of pricey and somewhat goes against the spirit of this blog, I have never been to Vegas and probably won’t go back for a while, so I am willing to pay $200 for 3 nights in the pursuit of having fun.

$20 Sandwich Trick

Thanks to all these Frequent Flyer Conferences I have been attending over the past year, I have met quite a few new Friends and have learned a ton of new “tricks”. One of these tricks is called the “Sandwich Trick” and works especially well in Las Vegas.

More information can be found here, but basically when you Check-in, you slip a $20 in between your Credit Card and your ID, and ask if there are any “Complimentary Upgrades” available.

If there are, then you “should” get upgraded, if not, then they “should” return your money.

It seems this is a common practice in Vegas (not sure about anywhere else), so we will definitely be trying it out and hopefully get our Rooms upgraded.

Requests For Any Vegas Tips

As I stated earlier, I have never been to Vegas as an Adult. I know there are a lot of people who go to Vegas multiple times a year and are basically Las Vegas “Residents”, so if anyone has any insider tips or must see Places, Restaurants, Clubs, Shows, etc., please feel free to comment or email me! Thanks in advance!

Recap

While Miles & Points may not be applicable to every single vacation you take, at a minimum you should be able to cover at least one of the 2 major expenses (Flight & Hotel) involved in traveling.

In my case, I was only able to cover the Flights since there weren‘t too many Hotel Point options available. Since I don’t have to pay for the Flights, $200 for 3 nights in a Suite is not a bad deal.

The reason I write about the boring logistics of the trips I take is to try and show first hand how much money you can save if you plan in advance and actively accrue Miles & Points via Credit Cards even if you don’t have any immediate trips planned. I cannot stress this enough!

We only decided a couple months ago to go to Vegas. Luckily I had more than enough Points to cover the flights, but had I not, then we would have had to apply for a new Card, complete the Minimum Spend, hope the Points post on time, and then double hope that there was some last minute availability (which I just chcked and there isn’t).

Thankfully that didn’t happen, but say I didn’t have any Points or Miles and opted to pay out of pocket, not only would I be paying $200 for the Hotel, but also then another $700 for the Flight, totaling almost $1,000!

Since I didn’t have to spend $700 on the flight, now when we go to Vegas this weekend, I won’t feel terrible spending money on a nice Dinner, Show, or heaven forbid if I lose money gambling because in my book I am still up $700.

Parag

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