August 1, 2017

Visit Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha this Summer With IHG PointBreaks Hotels For Only 5,000 IHG Points

IHG has released their Rewards PointBreaks for summer time that's valid through Oct 31, 2017. This promotion allows IHG member to redeem points for a free night stay at any IHG hotels that are on the participating list for only 5,000 IHG Points. I value IHG point at 0.7 cents per point, that means for 5,000 points, I am actually paying $35 for one night stay.

I happen to travel to two states that are on the list this coming August: Colorado and Nebraska. We originally wanted to stay in Wyoming for our road trip, but because of the Eclipse all the hotels are completely sold out on the date that we want. So instead, we started looking into Colorado. It appears that Longmont, Colorado that's not too far away has hotels available. What caught me by surprise is that it's only an hour away from the Rocky Mountain National Park. So, we are definitely going to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time and we decided to camp one night there prior to moving on to Omaha, Nebraska, etc.

Rocky Mountain National Park (Longmont, Colorado)
Fortunately, the Candlewood Suites in Longmont is on the list that participates with the IHG PointsBreaks promotion. I went ahead and reserved the room for 5,000 IHG Points per night. The property also accept pets for a fee; however, based on my experience, when I redeem points for IHG hotel stays, the hotels seem to waive the pet fees. I am not sure why or their system doesn't have a place to charge if it's an award stay or because of my Platinum Elite status with them. It's still a mystery to me! The regular nightly rate for the date that we want at Candlewood Suites is $171.50 before tax. With this promotion, I only pay 5,000 IHG points, which is equivalent to $35 based of my IHG point's valuation. So this is definitely a steal!

Stay At Candlewood Suites In Longmont Colorado This Summer For Only 5,000 IHG Points.
You Can Visit the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Omaha, Nebraska
Continuing on to Omaha, Nebraska - there are two properties that participate with the IHG PointsBreak: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Cherry Hills and Candlewood Suites Omaha – Millard Area. I took advantage of both places, but my preference goes to the Holiday Inn Express because they offer free hot breakfast that's not just continental breakfast. However, they do not accept pets. Whereas the Candlewood Suites does but they don't offer breakfast. I'll be staying at the Holiday Inn Express by myself for two nights (10,000 IHG Points) during my stays in Omaha and one night (5,000 IHG Points) in Candlewood Suites property when we have pets with us.

WHAT IS IHG REWARDS POINTBREAKS?
It is IHG hotel's special promotion that runs every 3 months for IHG rewards club members. Members can redeem points for a free night stay for only 5,000 points during the promotional period. I value IHG point at 0.7 cents per point, that means for 5,000 points, I am actually paying $35 for one night stay. The great thing about this promotion is that it's not just for IHG hotels in America, but also hotels around the world.

SO WHAT IS THE CATCH?
Do note that not all IHG hotels worldwide are participating with this promotion. Most hotels on the PointBreak's list that participate with this promotion are the ones that are usually in a destination that's less traveled to or the location of the property is not near tourist attractions; however, they do have good ones once in awhile. It makes it fun to wonder which awesome hotel could show up on the list. The popular ones obviously will be sold out quick, and therefore it's recommended that you jump on the deal quickly and cancel later as using points to redeem for an award night offers free cancellation up until check-in date. For those that will just happen to travel to the destination or on the road that has a participating IHG hotel on the PointsBreak's list, it's a fantastic deal to pass. It's also worth noting that each member can only book two reward nights reservations per hotel and each member also needs to have at least 5,000 IHG Points in his/her account to take advantage of this deal.

Complete list of IHG PointBreaks List Can Be Found Here


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July 31, 2017

My American Express Business Platinum Retention Offers

My American Express Business Platinum credit card's annual fee came due this weekend. It costs $450. That's pretty steep. However, I still love the benefits of this card a lot that I strongly believe that those benefits can really pay for the annual fee itself per year. Just with any other services, credit cards also have retention department that you can talk to someone to see if they have any offers prior to closing the card.

Enjoy Complimentary Drinks at American Express Centurion Lounge in Miami Airport With
American Express Business Platinum Credit Card's Privilege.

I called the American Express number on the back of my Platinum card. I said "cancel" to the automated machine. It then took me to a customer service representative. After verification, I told her about considering closing the card. That's when she had to bring up a specialist that handles retention. The process is rather simple and just be prepared to have a reason to answer the question why you want to close the account?

The specialist took a minute or so to check something out and then returned to offer me two options:
  1. $150 statement credit or 15,000 Membership Rewards Points - no spending requirement. 
  2. 6,000 Membership Rewards Points right away, plus if I spend $15,000 on the card in the next three month, I'll be rewarded additional 12,000 Membership Rewards Points
While #2 gives me opportunity to earn more points, but $15,000 spend is ridiculously high. So I opted for option #1. I picked the 15,000 Membership Rewards Points instead of the statement credit. The reason behind that is because I value points more than cash. Amex Membership Rewards Points are worth 1.9 cents a piece to me, so for 15,000 points that equals to $285. 

For the time being, I do think I'll keep my American Express Business Platinum Credit Card for now. As I mentioned above, although the annual fee is high, the benefits of this card can easily pay off the annual fee itself in a year. Here are the benefit that I value on this card:
  • Annual $200 airline credit - that lowers that annual fee to $250 per year. 
  • Access to American Express Centurion Lounges at airports. 
  • Access to Delta Sky Club at airports when flying with Delta. 
  • Access to Domestic and International Lounges at airports with Priority Pass.
  • Gold status with Hilton and Starwood (SPG). Great for complimentary room upgrade and earn bonus hotel points during paid stay. 
  • 10 Gogo in-flight wifi passes and unlimited wifi at Boingo hotspot. 
  • $100 credit for Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check. 
  • 35% points back when redeem Amex Membership Rewards Points for First & Business classes tickets with any airline. 
  • 5 points/$ spend on travel bookings through American Express Travel site. 
  • 1.5 points/$ spend on on purchases of $5,000 or more.
There are more benefits that come with this card such as purchase protection, rental car insurance, concierge services, etc. The concierge service was nice. I used it to book Broadway Tickets for New York City.


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July 13, 2017

Why Buying Hotel Points Deals Is Cheaper Than Paying For The Stay At La Quinta JFK Airport?

Yesterday, American Express came out with a few travel offers. One of the offer is the #AmexLaQuinta. If you are new to American Offers via twitter, you can check out the Complete Guide to American Express Offers. The offer basically is if you spend $100 on American Express credit card, you receiver $20 back on La Quinta's hotel stay.

I have to admit, I never stayed at La Quinta before. I actually knew nothing about it. They apparently have their own rewards program called La Quinta Returns. You can earn the Returns points through stays. So I looked into their redemption process, which is very similar to other hotel programs out there. They do, however, list all of their properties into each tier and that makes things very easy to see which property that you are interested in requires how many points. You can check it out here La Quinta Returns Rewards Progarm.

I have a stay coming up in New York one night as I'll be flying out from JFK to Port Elizabeth in South Africa. I have looked at various hotels there that is by the JFK airport and provides airport shuttle. They are not cheap!

Because of the American Express offer, I looked up to see if there's a La Quinta property there. Fortunately, yes there is one by the Rockaway beach called La Quinta Inn & Suites Far Rockaway - JFK Airport. The location sounds nice already! It also offers free airport shuttle from/to JFK and free hot breakfast in the morning. However, the rate is as high as other hotels there. It costs $135/night before tax, around $157/night after tax. Then I looked into how many points required to redeem one free night there. It is merely 11,000 points to get a free night stay. So I went to see if I can purchase La Quinta points and surprisingly they are having sales right now on La Quinta points if you buy 10,000 - 24,000 points, you get 20% off the price.

Here's the quick look of the promotion for buying La Quinta points:
1,000 – 4,000 points = No offer
5,000 – 9,000 points = 15% discount
10,000 – 24,000 points = 20% discount
25,000 – 35,000 points = 25% discount

Queen Bed at La Quinta Inn & Suites Far Rockaway - JFK Airport
Courtesy Photo of La Quinta Inn & Suites

By purchasing 11,000 points, it costs me $105.60 total. The points got added to my La Quinta account instantly after the purchase. I went ahead and redeem 11,000 points for La Quinta Inn & Suites Far Rockaway - JFK Airport. Here's the breakdown of my redemption:

Room Type: 
1 Queen Bed

Rate Type:
Returns Free Night

Rate Description:
Non commissionable Includes Free Bright Side Breakfast

Per Night Rate: 0.00 USD

Subtotal: 0.00 USD
Estimated Tax*: 2.50USD
Estimated Total with Tax*: 2.50 USD

Keep in mind this is my first time booking a hotel stay with La Quinta using points, so I knew nothing about the process. Apparently, they do charge little bit of tax on award night stay. The cancellation is by 6pm on the date that I'll be checking in. Moreover, just like any other hotel's rewards program, points stay does not earn points. I am alright with that as I seldom stay with La Quinta so it doesn't make sense to accrue their points.

In conclusion, I paid $105.60 plus ~$2.50 tax on 1 night stay at La Quinta Rockaway Beach by JFK airport instead of paying the regular rate of $157/night after tax. That's a total saving of ~$48.9! I find this a great deal because of the property's location, airport shuttle, and complimentary hot breakfast items in the morning, especially considering other good hotels there are expensive.

As a reminder, always compare the regular rate and the cost of purchasing hotel points. You also cannot earn points if you redeem points for free night(s).


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July 7, 2017

Hotel Review: Goulding's Lodge At The Monument Valley

​As I mentioned in the "Everything You Want To Know About The Monument Valley" post, there are only two hotels that are located at the Monument Valley's Navajo Tribal Park. One being the View hotel that locates inside the park, which requires you to pay for the park's entrance fee of $20 if you stay there, and the other one being the Goulding's Lodge that locates outside the park. We decided to stay at the Goulding's Lodge as the room rate was more reasonable and they have better cancellation policy than the View hotel.

#RoomWithView
Our room type was Standard Room with 2 Queen Beds on the ground floor. The room was very nice and the bed was comfortable. The bathroom is little bit dated but practical. It has a patio that overlooks the valley from sunrise to sundown which is very nice. The room also has complimentary wifi, but it's not premium.

Room With The View of The Monument Valley

Comfortable Standard Two Queen Beds

Location
The location of Goulding's Lodge is good. Although it's not inside the Navajo Tribal Park where the 17-mile loop drive starts, it is also surrounded by the nature and mountain.

Goulding's Lodge Surrounded by the Mountain

Amenities & Attractions
Gouldiing's Lodge is tailored for tourism. You will find amenities there such as their qualify gift shop, restaurant on site, swimming pool, museum, and John Wayne's Cabin.

The lodge is an attraction itself. You can go check out the museum free of charge. The museum shows how Mr. Goulding used to live, and if you are a Western film lover, you will enjoy learning many movies were actually taken place at the Monument Valley. While there, you can also check out the John Wayn's Cabin. It's a very small cabin. There are tour company that actually take visitors to check out the museum and the cabin there. In addition, Goulding's Lodge also has its own Monument Valley tour for a fee and you can read my full review here. Monument Valley Tour Review With Goulding's Tour.

Goulding's Museum

Many Western Movies Took Place At The Monument Valley

Small John Wayn's Cabin at the Goulding's Lodge

Onsite Restaurant
The restaurant at the Goulding's Lodge is OK. The food is mediocre but the price is a little bit high. But given how under-developed the Monument Valley is, your only option is either to eat at this lodge or the View hotel. Please note that alcoholic drinks are not available on the reservation and therefore they do not serve alcoholic drinks there.

Conclusion
Goulding's Lodge to me is not just a beautiful hotel that is surrounded by the nature, but also a historical attraction site at the Monument Valley with free museum and John Wayne's Cabin to keep guests entertained. If you are looking for souvenirs, the town does not have any stores, but the hotel has souvenirs store that you can stop by to purchase. Monument Valley is not very developed so restaurants are so limited, but Goulding's Lodge has decent onsite restaurant. All in all, if you at the lodge, you would get to do all of that as a half day things to do without driving anywhere for free, and commit another half day to doing the famous Monument Valley tour with a Navajo guide from the Gouliding's Tour service.


Don't forget to check out: Everything You Want To Know About The Monument Valley

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July 6, 2017

Monument Valley Tour Review With Goulding's Tour

Let me start out by saying that the Monument Valley is so beautiful. It's located in Utah and on the Navajo Reservation. The Monument Valley is a sacred place belongs to the Navajo tribe. It is recommended that you attend a tour with a Navajo guide so that you can learn the history of the Navajo tribe, open your imaginations to many wonderful rock formations as pointed out by the guide, and best of all have the guide does all the driving on the unpaved dirt road while you just kick back and enjoy the narratives and views. For more information about the tour, the road condition on the 17-mile scenic loop, places to stay, etc. please refer to the Q&A post on "Everything You Want To Know About The Monument Valley"

During our visit to the Monument Valley, we wanted to stay near the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which is the entrance to the 17-mile scenic drive loop. Our options were either the View Hotel or the Goulding's Lodge. We decided to stay with the Goulding's Lodge as the rate is cheaper and their cancellation policy is more flexible. We also found out that the Lodge does provide their own Monument Valley tour, so that's super convenient for us.

Goulding's Monument Valley Tour Price
I did a few researches to see how much a typical Monument Valley tour charges, to my surprise, the Goulding's Lodge's Basic 17-mile tour costs $60/adult, which is cheaper than the competitors that I found. They also have reasonable price for the sunrise and sunset tours, but those tours did not work out for us. We originally wanted to do just the Basic 17-mile loop tour; however, we wanted to experience the back-country further, so we decided to pick the Deluxe tour instead. The Deluxe tour includes the 17-mile loop plus the back-country experience. It costs more than the Basic tour and it takes an hour longer too. The experience is well worth it!

Booking Process
You can either book online or book on the phone. If you are staying with them, you can book on the phone and they will just put the specific tour that you want in your reservation. You are not getting charged until your check-in day, making this a nice flexible cancellation. I did inquire the girl at the lodge too whether it's necessary to book in advanced. She said no, if the tour is ever sold out, they will just bring more tour shuttles. So it's completely up to you on 'when' you want to book.

Tour Check-In
The Monument Valley tour provided by the Goulding's Lodge is operated by the Goulding's Lodge itself. It's not a third party tour. So when you check in for your stay, if you have a reservation for your tour, it'll be confirmed during that time as well. They then will instruct you on what time to wait for the shuttle, etc. The tour fee will be charged to the credit card on file. The process is really quite simple. The hotel staff told us to wait at the tour pick up area which is at the bench by the swimming pool area. Our room was across the pool so that was very convenient!

Tour Shuttle & Guide
The shuttle has the Goulding's name on it. It has a few seats on it with open-air windows. There were only two of us on the shuttle at the time. We were there during the off-peak season, so it ended up being a 'private' tour just us on the shuttle, which was kind of nice. The weather was a little bit cold that day, but the shuttle has a flapper that blocks the wind. However, do monitor the weather to dress properly because the tour is taken place outside. We did see other tour company's shuttle has no flapper and it's just open-air, bur...

The Goulding's Tour Shuttle with Flapper for blocking the wind
Our guide is a nice Navajo gentleman. His name is Henry. He has his own saying and character that we found very funny (in a good way). We enjoyed his company and his narratives showing us the Monument Valley!

Our Tour Guide Henry Came Out From the Hogan - Navajo Home
The Monument Valley Tour
The tour itself was wonderful. We are so glad that we did the Deluxe tour, especially we did not drive our rental car on the unpaved dirt road of the 17-mile loop. We did see a few non-four wheel drive car attempted to do that and we felt sorry for them because they were struggling navigating on that rough road.

At the beginning of the tour, our guide Henry took us to the Hogan, a Navajo home, to show us how Navajo tribe lives, weave rugs, etc. which was quite interesting. Once we hit the 17-mile loop, he pointed out to us several rock formations. I feel like once you are in the Monument Valley, you have to open your imagination to see Christ the Redeemer, Elephant, Snoopy Dog, the Mittens, etc. He also told us many stories and pointed out to us where famous movies were taken place there in the Monument Valley. The 17-mile loop is incredible, but the experience of the back-country to see more views that cannot be seen from the 17-mile loop is another highlight of our trip. It's so quiet and it makes you appreciate so much about the natural wonders.

Navajo Woman Demonstrated Weaving
Join the Monument Vally and See the Mittens In Person
Do you see Snoopy?
Conclusion
If you are going to the Monument Valley and wanting to stay there for the night, I recommend that you check out the Goulding's Lodge. They also provide the Monument Valley for more reasonable price compared to the competitors. You want to join at least their Basic tour so you get to experience the 17-miles scenic drive where you get to see all the highlights of the Monument Valley. If you can afford, pay the extra money for their Deluxe tour to go back-country to experience beyond the 17-miles drive. You will go back home with wonderful experience and of course beautiful photographs. The Monument Valley is just amazingly beautiful. As our guide Henry would say: "That's how it is!"

Don't forget to check out: Everything You Want To Know About The Monument Valley

For Goulding's Lodge Tour Information about tour description, time and price: https://www.gouldings.com/tours/


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July 3, 2017

I Scored 5 Nights At A Marriott Property for $85 In Cape Town South Africa - Protea Hotel Cape Town Waterfront Breakwater Lodge

​It caught me by surprise when I saw a Marriott property in Cape Town South Africa "Protea Hotel Cape Town Waterfront Breakwater Lodge" that is only a category 2 hotel. That means I can redeem Marriott points to stay there, which costs merely 10,000 points per night. To sweeten the deal even more with this low redemption, as a Marriott Rewards Member, when you redeem 5 nights on points, the fifth night is free. So I decided to stay at that property for 5 nights on points for my upcoming trip to Cape Town in South Africa. The total stay costs me 40,000 Marriott points. That is only $85 as those Marriott points were earned from getting the Marriott Credit Card  that offers 80,000 Marriott Bonus Points early this year with the annual fee of $85. I even have some Marriott points left for other uses. The regular non-refundable rate of this hotel is $255 USD per night before tax for the dates that I want. So 5 night stays would have costed me $1,238 USD including tax. Ouch and no thanks if I were to pay for the stays there.

Protea Hotel Cape Town Waterfront Breakwater Lodge's Exterior Photo
Courtesy of Marriott
Marriott stay redemption isn't usual my favorite because it requires too many points for one night stay and their lower category tend to be not within walking distance to major attraction sites. That's why I'm surprised to see the Protea Hotel Cape Town Waterfront Breakwater Lodge by Marriott is only a category 2 property in Cape Town.

The location of this property is outstanding. The property is only 5 mins walk to the V&A shopping mall waterfront, which is a safe tourist area recommended by traveler's on TripAdvisor to explore and sight see. It's close to many restaurants and tour activities such as the ferry to the Robben Island. The hotel itself has mixed reviews on TripAdvisor and the standard rooms that are allowed for points redemption look small, but the reviews all said excellent location. I have Gold Status with Marriott and did request an upgrade to a nicer room if available upon check in. I won't have full review on this until I complete my trip to South Africa, but from what I know this is a property that falls under Marriott chain, and therefore I should expect the Marriott standards that I value such as conformable bed, nice pillow, good customer service, and especially reliable WiFi as I work remotely from the hotel. The hotel also offers airport shuttle with a fee which I plan on using. All in all, it looks like a decent hotel for a comfortable night stay and the location is fantastic. Moreover, Marriott properties outside of USA typically impress me more than the ones in the USA.

I'm pretty excited when I can travel far with small money. I'm also glad to see Marriott has such a low category hotel on points at a great location of waterfront in great destination - Cape Town.


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July 2, 2017

Everything You Want To Know About The Monument Valley Utah

Where is the Monument Valley?
It is located at the border between Utah and Arizona. It is in Utah.

Is 1 Day Enough to Visit the Monument Valley?
Yes. You will need at least 1 day in order to experience what the Monument Valley has to offer. A day trip from nearby destination such as Page is also possible if you start out early.

Are There Entrance Fees to the Monument Valley?
There's no fees to drive through the Monument Valley town, but if you want to see the rock formations, which are the highlights of the Monument Valley, you will have to go through the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park - there's a $20 entrance fee per vehicle. However, there's a way to get that fee waived is to attend the native guide tour for the Monument Valley, keep on reading.

Is the $20 Entrance Fee Included in the National Parks Passes (a.k.a America Beautiful Passes)?
No, it's a separate fee. The Monument Valley is a Navajo Tribal Park. It's not a National Park nor it's affiliated with any of the National Parks.

The Monument Valley

What Are the Highlights of the Monument Valley to see?
If you decide to tour the park on your own (but be careful), you can drive through the 17-mile loop of Monument Valley which you get to see the The East and West Mittens, John Ford’s Point, Three Sisters, the Totem Pole, the Artist’s Point, and the North Window viewpoints. These are rock formations, but they are very well known as they were filmed in several western movies (photos below).

If you decide to drive on your own, do keep the following park's hours for the 17-mile scenic drive:
Peak Season (May 1-Sept 30) 6:00am - 8:30pm
Off Season (Oct 1 - Apr 30) 8:00am - 4:30pm

Iconic East and West Mittens
Totem Pole
Our Favorite John Ford's Point
The Three Sisters Rock Formation
North Window View Piont
If you would like to see beyond the 17-mile loop, you will need to hire a tour guide. The Monument Valley is a sacred place that belongs to the Navajo tribe. Therefore, in order to go back-country, you will need to be accompanied by a Navajo tour guide. The back-country is an experience in itself and you will also get to see more rock formations such as the Sun’s Eye and Ear of the Wind, Natural Arches, and different viewpoints than the 17-mile loop road.

Back Country Tour: Ear of the Wind
You See the Native Man?
Is Tour Needed For the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park?
No, not for the 17-mile loop. However, keep in mind that the road is an unpaved dirt road. It is recommended that your car is four-wheel drive. The road is rough, so drive carefully and be aware that driving a rental car there will void your contract in case of any damages. So it's best to join a tour. You will be transported by the native guide tour. The tour price itself includes the park's entrance fee of $20 per vehicle, and the guide will show you all the highlights of Monument Valley. Let the guide does all the driving and you can just enjoy the viewpoints without worrying about the car.

If you desire to go beyond the 17-mile loop for the back-country experience, you will definitely need the native tour guide.

Here's our full review on Monument Valley Tour Review With Goulding's Tour

17-Mile Loop - Unpaved Dirt Road
How Much is the Tour?
The tour price varies by the tour company. For the famous 17-mile loop, you are looking around at least $60/adult and more for the back-country tour. Tour price includes the park's entrance fees and hotels pick-up and drop-off services. The tour typically takes about 2 and half hours for the 17-mile loop.

Any Recommended Tour Company? 
There are a few tour company. Your best chance is to check with the hotel that you are staying with to see if they can arrange a tour for you or they offer any tours. We were staying at the Goulding's Lodge at the Monument Valley and they offer both the 17-mile loop and back-country tour. We did both tours and the $73/adult price that we paid was well worth it.
*Note: If the tour company does not provide pick up and drop off services, please make sure the tour price does include the $20 park's entrance fee. It's always good to inquire the tour company what the tour price does and does not include.

Do I Need to Reserve the Tour in Advanced?
If your travel plan is concrete and the tour offers easy cancellation policy, why not? One more thing you do not need to worry about when you get there. However, it's absolutely fine if you want to wait until you get there. There will always be tour available.

Tour isn't my thing. Can I See the Highlights such as the the Mittens, John Ford's Point, Totem Pole without going on the 17-mile dirt road to avoid going on a tour? 
Unfortunately not. The Mittens can be seen from the paved road, especially once you enter the park, the view of the East and West Mittens can be seen from the View Hotel inside the park. However, in order to see the other viewpoints, you will need to be on the 17-mile loop drive. If tour is not your thing, consider renting a four-wheel drive car.

Where Should I Stay While Visiting the Monument Valley?
Monument Valley is not a developed town. There are only two hotels that are at the Monument Valley. One being the Goulding's Lodge outside the park and another one being the View Hotel inside the park. Both hotels offer amazing view of the Monument Valley. The View Hotel is nice as each room offers the view of the Mittens. Because the View Hotel is inside the park, I am not sure if you have to pay for the park's entrance fee to stay there or the room rate already includes the fee, so do check with them. Other lodgings are also available, but they are outside of the Monument Valley.

Money Saving Tip: If you decide to stay with either Goulding's Lodge or the View Hotel, they both are available to book through third party travel sites such as Orbitz, Hotels.com, Expedia, etc. These sites are available on cash-back shopping portal. You will get cash back and earn their rewards program instead of booking directly with those two hotels. Also, don't forget to use a credit card that earns the best points with travel. For more information:

How About Restaurants?
Given the Monument Valley is not very developed, restaurants are also limited. Both hotels mentioned above have onsite restaurant and you don't have to be guests to eat there; however, please keep in mind that because Monument Valley is on the Navajo Reservation, alcoholic drinks are not available.


Our full review on Monument Valley Tour Review With Goulding's Tour

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July 1, 2017

The Older You Get, The Cheaper Your Hotel Stay With Starwood Hotels & Resorts

While exploring what hotel programs are available in Miami/South Beach area, I remember Starwood Hotels & Resorts has this on-going promotion called: Starwood Birth Year Promotion. The gist of this promotion is: you pay the regular refundable rate for the first night, and your second and third night rates will be based on the year you were born. Different, right?

So as you grow older, you are not only wiser and richer (hopefully), you get to pay cheaper room rate for hotel stays with Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Starwood Preferred Guest rewards program is one of the best rewards program in miles & points industry because you can use those Starpoints not only for hotel stays, but also transfer to several airline miles. Cheap room at a nice hotel in Miami and earn valuable Starpoints? I'm sold!

The Birth Year Promotion is not available for everywhere. You will have to go to the promotion page and see if the Starwood hotels that you are looking to stay at is participating in this promotion. Starwood Hotels & Resorts are: Sheraton, Westin, Four Points by Sheraton, W Hotels, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, Le Méridien, Element, Aloft and Tribute Portfolio.

For example, the Starwood hotel that I was looking at is the Four Points by Sheraton Miami Beach. This hotel is located on the Collins Ave, which is just one block away from the white sandy beach of Miami. Some rooms at the Four Points also provide ocean view. This hotel participates in the Birth Year Promotion, here's their offer:
  • First night at our best available flexible rate
  • Second and third night rates equal to your birth year
  • (Born in 1970? You pay $70.)
  • Valid for arrivals Thursday through Saturday
That works out perfect for the dates that we'll be there and I did verify the availability just to make sure, and indeed the birth year rate is available for the dates that I wanted.

This Four Points property has 3 types of rooms available for the birth year rate: Traditional City View, Deluxe Oceanfront, and Junior Suite Ocean View.

Deluxe King Bed Oceanfront Room
Photo Courtesy of Four Points by Sheraton Miami Beach

As a reminder that if you hold Gold status with Starwood program, you can book the traditional room type and request for 'enhanced room' upgrade. Upon check-in, if your preferred room type is available, they may put you in one of those ocean view room types for free. If you do not have status with Starwood program, the price differences between the Traditional and Deluxe room is not that much, so I would consider staying in the Deluxe Room for the view. If you are born in 1970, you will pay for for the first night at the regular rate, and then pay only $70 for your second and third night. That's a good deal! Do note also that, the regular rate is refundable rate, so that means you can book now and decide later! You will also have to pay taxes on the total stay as well.

Tips: Fast Track to Starwood Gold Status:
  1. If you have Gold status with Marriott Rewards Program, you can status match with Starwood Rewards Program
  2. If you hold American Express Platinum Credit Card, you can request to have Starwood Gold Status. 
  3. If you hold American Express Starwood Credit Card, you get Starwood Gold status automatically after putting $30,000 spent on the card each year. 

Each participating property could have different rate rules and dates availability. You will have to check it out (link below). This is a fantastic deal for those that are looking to stay at a nice hotel without having to pay too much out of the pocket. It's time to take your parents and grandparents to travel with you!!!

I have talked about this promotion on this blog before, to learn more about this promotion, you can check out the post that I made on this before here.

Starwood Birth Year Promotion Link


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June 30, 2017

San Juan Islands Planning Part 2: Washington State Ferries Fares and Reserve Ferry Tickets

Thanks to the Washington State Ferries service, hopping through the San Juan Islands is very convenient. The islands that the inter-island ferries operate at this time are: San Juan, Orcas, Shaw, and Lopez islands.

If you just want to visit one island at a time, make sure to check the Part 1 of the San Juan Islands Planning: Which Island? to help you decide which island to stay on. If you want to experience multiple islands, it is very important that you know how the fares and ticket reservations work.

Fares 
First thing first, the Washington State Ferries operate from the Anacortes town, which is about 1 and half drive from Seattle to one of the San Juan Islands. This is the most economical way to get to San Juan Islands from the mainland. When planning your trip, keep in mind for the following fare structures of Washington State Ferries:

  • A trip from Anacortes to San Juan Islands, whether you are bringing car with you or not, you will need to pay the passenger fare. 
  • Island Hopping/Inter-island Ferries: 
    • Pedestrians and those with bikes can ride the inter-island ferries for free. 
    • If you are going Westbound, you will be charged for your car.
    • If you are going Eastbound, including the trip back to Anacortes, you will NOT be charged for your car. 
In other words, if you are bringing your car with you (which is highly recommended for those that are interested in exploring more than one island), the trip from Orcas to Friday Harbor on San Juan island will incur a fee because that's considered Westbound sailing, whereas a trip from Friday Harbor to Orcas, it's free of charge because that's Eastbound sailing. 

Here are the points that you will need to keep in mind when taking the vehicle with you for island hopping: 
  • Anacortes to any of the four islands - Yes charge.
  • San Juan to Orcas island - Free of charge. 
  • Orcas to Shaw island - Free of charge.
  • Shaw - Lopez island - Free of charge. 
  • Any of the four islands to Anacortes - Free of charge.
As long as you are sailing Westbound from one island to the other, you will NOT be charged for taking the vehicle with you.

For more information on the ferry fares, you can go to the Washington State Ferries Fare site and plug in the departing terminal and arriving terminal, the site will tell you how much it costs.

For information on the ferry schedule, go to the Washington State Ferries Schedule site.

Reservations
Now that you know how the Washington State Ferries fares work, the next question is how to purchase the ferry ticket?

I personally find the Washington State Ferries website very simple and user-friendly. At this time, you are able to make online reservation via the website for the following routes:
  • Anacortes to any of the four islands. 
  • Friday Harbor on San Juan island to Anacortes
  • Orcas island to Anacortes
Any other islands to Anacortes cannot be reserved online. You will need to plan on getting to the ferry terminal early to ensure you get on the time slot that you prefer. The inter-island ferries, on the other hand, typically don't get really busy, so there's always space available. 

I also recommend that you create a login account with the Washington State Ferries website. This will enable you to make changes to the reservation much faster and easier. Below are the change and cancellation rules: 
  • The online reservation system asks for credit card information to charge only in the event of a no-show. The fee is $10. 
  • Reservations must be canceled by 5pm the day prior to travel in order to avoid a no-show fee.
  • Unlimited changes are permitted up to 5pm the day prior to the reserved sailing. 
  • One change is allowed after 5pm but must be made more than two hours in advance of the reserved sailing for Anacortes/San Juan Island reservations.  
  • Any reservations cancelled after making the one allowable change after 5pm the day before will be charged a no-show fee.
  • Reservations for San Juan Island travel are reserved as separate legs. Please be reminded if you change or cancel an outbound trip, you may also need to change or cancel the return trip to avoid a no-show fee.
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June 29, 2017

San Juan islands Planning Part 1: Which Island?

Ever since I heard about San Juan Islands in Washington, I have always been wanting to visit. There are many islands that make up the San Juan Islands, but only four of those islands that are reachable by Washington State Ferries leaving from Anacortes town, which is 1 and half hour drive from Seattle.

Those four islands are: San Juan, Orcas, Shaw, and Lopez. These islands are still under-developed, especially Lopez and Shaw. Let's take a look at each island to help you planning a trip there and decide which island to visit or maybe visit all of them.

You can take Washington Ferry from Anacortes town to Four San Juan Islands

San Juan Island
This is the most developed island. The Friday Harbor is a town itself on the island that has various types of lodgings, restaurants, and shops available. The ferry also stops right in the center of activities in this town, making it super convenient to check things out without having to drive. This is perfect for a half day to one full day trip. With that in mind, if you want to explore more on the San Juan Island, you will need to drive. Renting car on the island is also an option, but this requires super well in advanced reservation as availability is very limited.

Orcas Island
This is the second most developed island. Just the name of the island itself is intriguing. As the name suggests, whale watching activity is one of the highlight things to do on the island. If you are into hiking, there's the Moran State Park. Lodging is more limited compared to San Juan Island, but it provides more relaxing atmosphere for those that don't like crowds and just want a quiet lazy island time. Staying on Orcas Island, you will definitely need a means of transportation.

Shaw Island
This is the least developed island among all four islands. You will find the island is very private. It has more local residents that live on the island than tourists, and therefore it's not really visitor friendly. You can go ride bicycle and explore the island or stop for a picnic, but if you are looking for more things to do, Shaw island is not an ideal destination for that. You will also need transportation to do things on this island.

Lopez Island
Lopez island is not as developed as San Juan and Orcas, but it definitely has a lot more to offer than Shaw island. It's a very bike-friendly island. With that being said, walking is not recommended to visit Lopez island. You will need to drive or cycle, making this a perfect half-day or one day excursion from the other islands.

Conclusion
San Juan Islands in Washington may not be on everyone's list of places to visit; but if you are looking for a weekend getaway to have some "island" time that's just a short ferry away from the mainland, all four unique islands: San Juan, Orcas, Shaw, and Lopez, each has its own characteristic to offer visitors.

If you are looking for a pedestrian friendly town on the island and it offers a lot of things to do, then go to the Friday Harbor on the San Juan Island. If you are looking for more tranquil time, then consider going to Orcas Island. I'd say that for any first time visitor, these two islands are the most popular ones among all four. Lopez island is ideal for a day trip from these two islands, and so is Shaw island; however, Lopez has a lot more to offer than Shaw. If you have multiple days of vacation, you may as well do island hopping on San Juan Islands. Thanks to the Washington inter-island ferry service.

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May 11, 2017

Review: Four Corners Monument

I want to start out by saying that if Four Corners Monument is on your way to somewhere, then considering adding it to your itinerary. There are couple reasons for that: 
  1. There's not much to see and do there and so a long drive to get there just to see it might be a little bit of work. 
  2. Because of how compact the place is, it can't take much of your time to ruin your itinerary. 
Regardless, I'm sure glad I got to see the place in person while on our Arizona/Utah trip.

Entrance Fee
The entrance fee is $5 per person NOT per vehicle.

The Monument
The place is pretty compact as I said earlier. The Four Corners area where it has all the Four stares: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet allow many visitors to take photos, but it's really difficult to take a nice photo of that without people in it because everyone is there for that area!

The Four Corners
Besides that, there are sitting areas that visitors can sit down and relax. There are stalls that many local Native American vendors sell souvenir items. I sure got a sand paint magnet from one of the stalls. They mostly sell the same items but watch out for the price. Browse around and find the cheapest place to buy from. It's a small area, so it's not that hard to look around!

One Magnet A Visit: Four Corners Magnet Souvenir
Summary
My recommendation is, don't listen to people that tell you Four Corners is not worth the trip! If it's something on your list, then go do it when you have the opportunity to do so. That is, if it's just a short cruising from your base location or it's on your way to your destination. It's a small area so it's very easy to look around and see. The experience and seeing it for yourself are what matter!

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May 10, 2017

Venice Public Transportation: Vaporetti/Water Bus

Venice is an expensive European city to visit. Generally speaking, Europe is expensive. I am so fortunate to be able to utilize points for hotel stays near the St. Mark's Square/Grand Canal in Venice and sure looking forward to it!

Another thing that shows how expensive Venice is, is their Public Transportation. Around the Grand Canal, which is the area that I highly recommend any Venice visitors to stay around that area if possible for sightseeing and exploring Venice. The area is mostly operated through water way. They do have land buses too, but they also have the "Vaporetti" (a.k.a Water Bus). This is not the Venice's iconic Gondola. That one has separate special fare.

Vaporetti/Water Bus Fares
The Vaporetti/Water Bus is operated by the ACTV company. One single ride on the Vaporetti costs 7,50 Euro, which is around $8 USD. That is outrageous. If you will be using public transportation more often there, it may make sense to purchase the TIME tickets instead:
  • 20,00 Euro - 24 Hours/1 Day Ticket
  • 30,00 Euro - 48 Hours/2 Days Ticket 
  • 40,00 Euro - 72 Hours/3 Days Ticket
  • 60,00 Euro - 168 Hours/7 Days Ticket

The Venice Marco Polo Airport Bus Route #5 which operates on land, leaving to/from Piazzale Roma has different fare. It costs 8 Euro one-way and 15 Euro round-trips. It is worth noting that, paying extra 6 Euro, added to the time tickets (1, 2, 3, 7 Days) above, allows you to travel one-way to the airport or 12 Euro for round-trips via the airport bus route #5. 

There's a water shuttle option to/from the airport that is operated by a completely different company called Alilaguna Service. They have their own ticket fare which is more expensive than the ACTV's tickets. Their routes are also specific and pretty limited. For more information: Alilaguna Service Company

Public Transportation Tips
Fortunately, the Grand Canal or St. Mark's Square area is compact and therefore you should consider walking if you can. Otherwise, here are some tips:
  1. Forget about water taxi and private transfers. They are very expensive.
  2. Try to stay around the St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) as possible. 
  3. Consider walking if you can. Venice is compact and thus easy to navigate. 
  4. If you must take the water bus to go somewhere further, for example: Burano island. Then consider purchasing the time tickets instead. Round trips will cost you 15 Euro, but a 24 hours ticket will cost you 5 more Euro and you will be able to take unlimited Water Buses for entire 24 hours. The 24 hours time start once your ticket is validated. 
  5. Talking of tickets validation, it's very important you validate the ticket prior to getting on board. The fine is pretty hefty if you don't or forget. 
  6. Determine how you get to/from the Airport or Train Station to Piazza San Marco. If it's not within walking distance, determine what type of ticket that benefits you the most. 
Example/Scenario
Here's my scenario for my trip. We'll be arriving in Venice via the Venezia Santa Lucia railway station and leaving Venice via Venice Marco Polo Airport. 
  • Day 1: Train station to hotel in San Marco - need 1 Water Bus ticket x 2 adults = 15 Euro.
  • Day 2: Walk
  • Day 3: Go to Burano Island and places that require Water Bus - need 1 Day/24 hours Water Bus ticket x 2 adults = 40 Euro.
    • If we want to add the airport bus route #5, we would pay extra 12 Euro for 2 adults to the 1 day ticket price for one-way from Piazzale Roma to the airport for Day 4. 
  • Day 4: We have two options:
    • Use the unexpired 1 day ticket to get to Piazzale Roma from our hotel, and from there take the land bus route #5 to the airport. OR
    • We go with the water option with the Alilaguna Service as they have the stop right by our hotel straight to the airport; however, the cost is 15 Euro per person. 

Conclusion
As you can see, it can be really expensive to use public transportations in Venice. The gist of it is, if you can walk then walk. If you cannot walk, be strategic about what type of Vaporetti/Water Bus ticket that benefits you the most and makes the most sense for money savings.

Fore more information on ACTV Vaporetti/Water Bus Ticket Fares.
For more information on Alilaguna Service Company


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May 8, 2017

How To Purchase New York Metro Card?

If it's your first time visiting to New York City and you plan on using public transportation Subway there, make sure to check out my article on How Much To Put On Metro Card? first. After that, you can read the steps below on how to purchase the Metro Card. I found the process rather confusing at first when I first visited New York City and sure did not like the fact that people were waiting behind me while I was trying to figure out how to get a Subway Metro Card from the vending machine.

Do-It-Yourself Method
Purchasing the New York Subway Metro Card is actually very easy. The most convenient do-it-yourself way is to buy it from the Metro Card vending machine, to do that folllow these steps:
  1. Know beforehand how much money you want to put on the Metro Card. How Much To Put On Metro Card? 
  2. Locate a Subway station.
  3. At the Metro Card vending machine , follow the instructions on the touch screen.
  4. Tap Other Amount, when you put in the amount you want, make sure it is NOT included the $1 Metro Card. That amount will be added to the final balance on the final screen if you don't have the card yet. 
  5. Pay using cash, debit or credit card. If you use card, on the left bottom corner, insert the card side according to the displayed image on the slot and remove it right away. So insert and then remove. 
  6. Once it's done, the Metro Card will be dispensed from the top right hand and NOT the bottom. 
Bottom Left Corner: Pay With Credit Card
Top Right Says Metro Card: Metro Card Dispension
Other Methods
If you prefer the method of getting the Metro Card from a live person, you can purchase directly from the Subway's customer service window located in the Subway station (cash only) or retailer. You can find the retailers using the following link: http://tripplanner.mta.info/metrocardmerchants/

How To Use Metro Card?
To use the Metro Card for Subway rides, it's very easy. At the turnstiles entrance, you simply swipe your card. The Metro Card shows the arrow direction that you neee to swipe the card on the metal machine. Don't swipe too slow, but if you do you will see the sign tells you so and asks you to swipe again.
Follow the Arrow Sign and Swipe!
Remember the Metro Card can be used for multiple people, so once one person is done and entered, simply pass the card to the next person to swipe then enter. It's worth noting that you can see the balance remaining on the card on the screen on the swiping metal machine after each swipe.

Enjoy the trip to New York City!

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May 7, 2017

Hotel Review: Corner View at Courtyard Portland City Center

Room Number: 911
Room Rate: $112 With AAA Discount Standard 1 King
Room Type: Corner View Free Upgrade
Room Floor: 9th Floor
Stay Date: February 2017

Check-In:
There was little hick up for my check-in process, but it was not hotel's fault. We arrived in Portland around half past 10 in the morning, so our upgraded Corner View Room on the 10th floor wasn't ready. However, the front desk girl suggested 3rd floor, same type of corner room but way lower floor. I took the suggestion but then regretfully asked her to put us back to the 10th floor instead because the view really sucks! All I could see is ugly parking space from the corner of the room's big window. We dropped the bags at front desk and went sightseeing while they were getting the room ready. We got back later after 2 and half hours and room was still not ready. We left again and after about an hour, came back and the room on the 10th still wasn't ready. But they suggested 9th floor this time and I decided to take it as it's only one floor different. The view up there is so much better than the room on the 3rd floor. 

Corner View Upgraded Room
Beautiful Lobby
Location:
The location of this hotel is marvelous! It's centrally located in Portland downtown. It's within walking distance to Amtrak Union Station, many restaurants and department stores. Food trucks are just 7 mins walk away. If you want to travel further, the MAX transportation is right at door step of the hotel just across the street. 

Amtrak Station Is Within Walking Distance
Room & Bed:
The boutique designed of the guestroom is very nice. It's very welcoming and the comfortable king bed is inviting. Our reservation was just the standard room but because of my Gold Elite Status with Marriott, the hotel offered complimentary upgrade to their premium Corner View Room. The view from the corner of the room is really cool. We got to see Portland town from up above and that definitely was the highlight of my stay at this Courtyard property. Bathroom is also very nice and looks renovated with tile floors. From the bathroom, you can also enjoy the city view! Overall, I really appreciate the upgrade as I got to experience the so called Corner View Room. 

Super Comfortable Marriott Bed
More Corner View!
Modern Look Bathroom
Restaurant
As a reminder, Courtyard doesn't offer complimentary breakfast to Marriott's Gold or Platinum members. This particular Courtyard also does not have bistro on site; however, they do have the Original restaurant that we went to have breakfast at. Personally, I think the food is mediocre, price is reasonable but not economical either. You can charge the bill to the room so you can earn Marriott points. What you see on the room service menu is pretty much what they have in the restaurant with the same price.

Our Breakfast at the Original Restaurant by Courtyard
Hotel Exterior

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May 6, 2017

Hotels.com Rewards Program: Stay 10 Nights, Get 1 Free Night. Is It Good Deal?

In light of the fact that I have finally accrued 10 nights on Hotels.com, I want to write something about its rewards program.



Stay 10 Nights & Get 1 Free Night
First, let me start out by saying that, Hotels.com's rewards program isn't my favorite hotel's rewards program because you have to stay 10 nights in order to earn one free night for another future stay. The way the program works is that after you stay 10 nights, you'll earn one free night. That one free night basically is just an average of the total amount that you spent on the room's rate before tax for all the past 10 night stays. Mathematically, it's a savings of 10% each time. But you can't see that savings until you complete 10 night stays and use that one free night. So the redemption process isn't instant and that's why I don't like it. 

I prefer Orbitz, another hotels booking site, because every booking you receive Orbucks (Orbitz rewards program) right away to use for another booking and they always have this 15% off coupon that I frequently use. The 15% savings plus Orbucks, that's a good deal. Make sure to check out my article on How to Save On Hotel's Booking With Orbitz.

Talking of percentage coupon, Hotels.com does have coupon as welll. However, the way it works is that if you use coupon, you can't earn nights towards your 10 nights requirement. So if you must book with Hotels.com, it makes sense to use coupon only if it is at least 10% high as not to lose your savings. The rewards night also has expiration date if your last activity is more than a year ago. In my instance, I had 9 reward nights but it was going to expire in May because my last booking was May 2016. If I stopped booking with Hotels.com, I would lose all those 9 reward nights in May 2017. That's why I decided to book hotel in McCall Idaho through Hotels.com and checked out the Ice Carnival there. I could not find that particular McCall hotel on Orbitz anyway. 

In Summary
Overall, the only reason I book hotels through travel agents websites such as Orbitz or Hotels.com is because I cannot find chain hotels such as IHG, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott etc. or they are too expensive. I value stays through those hotels and earn points through them much better than non-chain ones. Because of how restrictive of coupons usage on Hotels.com and how long it takes to accrue nights in order to save money, I nowadays go to Orbitz instead due to the regular 15% off coupon and earning instant Orbucks. If I can find hotels on Hotels.com, there's a 99% chance I'll find that same hotel on Orbitz as well. Do note that chain hotels that are found on those sites do not qualify for earning points and most of them you can't use coupons for it. That's why I only book chain hotels directly and leave non chain ones to Orbitz. 

Thanks to the ice carnival I got to accrue my 10th night and got to see the Ice Carnival in McCall Idaho for the first time!


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