June 7, 2018

Doing Italy on Points and Miles with a Baby -- Lodging

Borgo Pignano during our Italy 2017 trip. Cool converted Tuscan villa.

We stayed at some unique places during our trip to Italy. I didn't book them at all with Points this time around, but I did my best to get them on a deal. In addition, I signed up for the Barclaycard Arrival Plus Card which basically gives you $420 to spend on any travel. This is perfect for Airbnb stays, for example. I think the lesson is that sometimes it makes sense to use points when you can, other times, it can be worth it to save them for a future trip to get the most out of them.


None of our Italy hotels were booked on points (but I did make the original reservations on points)

I like to book hotel rooms on points, if possible, because it feels free. However this time I had an additional criterion, I wanted to book us in places where Sarah and I could sleep separately from our son, since we all get better sleep that way. If that meant booking a suite or an extra room or a unique place, that was the goal.

Another challenge is that Italy is kind of a weird market for points hotels. Yes there are points hotels in Venice and Rome, but very few with Hyatt (best value for points in my opinion) and the Starwood hotel redemption options were super expensive (these are harder to get!) in terms of points.  In some of the areas we went like the Cinque Terre, there are just plain no points hotels at all.

I made two of our reservations on points. The first points hotel we stayed at was in Florence. We stayed at the AC Hotel Firenze which is a 10 min walk from the main Florence train station. It was convenient to get on public transportation to get to the city center's historical sites and was located in a pretty quiet neighborhood. Another posh option I was looking at was the Westin Excelsior Florence on the River (Starwood), however it didn't have points rooms available when I was ready to book and it's 20k starpoints per night.  I booked the AC Hotel Firenze on points at first for 35,000 Marriott points per night, but then the price dropped to below $100 a night and I decided this was better than using points. We stayed for 3 nights in Florence. The room was large enough that we just got a normal room from this hotel.

The second reservation on points was at the Le Meridien Visconti Rome. It's located near the Tiber River near the Supreme Court and not far from Vatican City. The location isn't near some of the more touristy parts, but that was ok and there's plenty of buses and taxis around. I found that taxis are pretty cheap (like 7-10 EUR to get from the hotel to Colosseo at night). This place was 12,000 points per night. However, I knew the rooms would be small, so I had the option of booking two adjoining rooms (would have cost 24,000 starpoints per night) for just around $190 per night (The "Connections Room") and so I again changed our reservation the day before we were to begin our stay there. Oh yeah! The hotel also had 3 awesome gelato spots within 1-2 blocks.

How we booked other unique places we stayed

I tried Airbnb for the first time on this trip. I just wasn't finding what I wanted for points hotels in Venice. And the prices for normal (crappy Venice) hotel rooms seemed really high. On Airbnb, it seemed like there were a lot more options. I narrowed the search to whole apartments and found a nice little place in the middle of the action between Rialto bridge and Piazza San Marco. The place had a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen/living room with a pack n play for the baby. It worked well for 2 nights.

In Cinque Terre, I also used Airbnb to look up places to stay, however, I discovered that many of the places were actually rented by a vacation rental company called Cinque Terre Riviera. The price for the same unit via CTR was much less than the price via Airbnb (even accounting for the Airbnb markup). So I booked directly with them for our 3 nights in Cinque Terre. We stayed in this little place called "Petrella's Point" it had an upstairs loft and a downstairs with a kitchen and living room and bathroom seemingly carved into the stone many years ago.  The price was right 110 EUR per night plus 50 EUR cleaning fee at the end. This place was right near the water and action. During the day we could hear everyone walking by, but at night, when trains stop running, the place is calm and quiet--we seemed to have the whole place to ourselves.

OK this post is getting long.

Luxury Travel Diary Auctions

Here's my favorite little lesson/secret I used for this trip. I learned about a blog called Luxury Travel Diary that holds auctions for luxury hotels and travel items. They have auctions that end every few days or so, but you can see which ones are going on up to 3 months in advance. Most of the auctions are for places I am not planning to go right now like Abu Dhabi or the English countryside or Bali.  Often if it's a hotel stay, it has to be used during a specific set of dates.

Occassionally, there's one to get excited about. I saw one for Borgo Pignano in Tuscany and thought it might be interesting. It was described as a suite in this converted Villa for 2 nights worth $1080. It worked with our dates, so I rolled with it and started bidding. The way the bids work is that the auction ends at a certain time. If a high bid is entered within 10 min of the end time, the bidding is extended for 10 min. I was on there for an extra 90 minutes bidding against 2 other random people, but won the auction for 237GBP.

Here are a bunch of photos of the place, view from our room, the courtyard, library, billiard hall, bathroom, bedrooms, and cool doors to our room.

The room ended up being a 2-room "Suite with Charm" and the room came attached to a HUGE bathroom with homemade soaps, a large tub I could fit in, a shower, bidet, and two sinks.

Seriously, this place turned out to be the highlight of our whole Italy visit as Sarah has written. Beautiful views, gorgeous grounds and rooms, the best service, and nearly everything is sourced from their own farm, garden, and apiary. I can't say enough good things. They even served fresh figs in our room upon arrival from the fig tree outside! Guess who liked those. . . We all did. What an awesome place.

Oh and here's the breakfast spread:

Doing Italy 2017 on Points and Miles with a Baby -- Flights

Main Pool at Borgo Pignano

I used some similar and some new travel tools for our trip to Italy. Italy is a bit of a challenge on points and mile because there are relatively few points hotels for all the many tourists there are wandering around this most beautiful country.


For flights to Italy, we had a goal to fly in lay flat business class seats for our trans-atlantic flights. Out of Boston, there are a few options as it has become a major gateway to europe over the last few years. We ended up finding flights on Swiss Airlines. You can book swiss airlines using miles from any of their partners including United Airlines.

When we lived in Santa Barbara, we flew United constantly becuase they had the most flights everyday out of SBA. In Boston, I find we don't take United much. But I find their miles one of the most useful becuase they have great partners, a decent number of award flights, and comparatively reasonable number of miles to get where you're going.

To get to europe from the lower 48 states using United miles costs 30,000 miles in economy, 57,500 miles in United business class, and 70,000 miles in partner airline business class each way. So you can see the number of points can add up quickly if you have 2 or 3 tickets to buy. In addition to miles, you still have to pay taxes based on the airports you're landing and taking off from. I like doing this with a card with good travel protections. The tax for each of our roundtrip tickets was $88.16 per person.

LX55         BOS   5:00PM      ZRH     6:15AM     AUG28
LX1660     ZRH   8:55AM     VCE    10:00AM    AUG29
LX1727     FCO   9:40AM     ZRH    11:20AM    SEP 12
LX52         ZRH   5:30PM      BOS     7:55PM      SEP 12

We flew Boston (BOS) to Zurich (ZRH) and then Zurich to Venice (VCE) on the outbound flights. On the return we did Rome (FCO) to Zurich and then Zurich to Boston on the return. One thing of note is that all the flights from Boston and New York that I could find all flew leaving at night. So don't expect to find any flights leaving in the morning . . .

 Our son in the "captain's seat 3A on Swiss A330 BOS to ZRH

One thing to know is that we had our son (who was less than 2 at the time) travelling with us. Sarah has covered all she did to make that possible from packing and planning for his needs. With booking tickets, it's important to remember that rules for travelling with babies are different if you're flying international (lap children aren't free like they are if you're within the U.S.) That goes for foreign airlines as well as US airlines like united, american, and delta.  check out this post for information about infant lap child rules on different airlines. I'd say the most common rule is that a baby costs 10% of the cash price for the itinerary you're doing.  So even though there were many possible ways to go BOS-VCE and FCO-BOS they had cash prices from $2000 to $9000 in business. Part of my search was to find itineraries that had a lower cash price in addition to being available for the fixed miles price. Our  son's business lap child ticket ended up costing about $276 in fare and with taxes came out to $334.

On both of our long flights, we lucked out and there were empty seats in business class. Topher got to sleep on his own empty seat there and back.

Collecting Points

For these flights we basically needed 280,000 United miles. That's a lot. It actually took a good while to save up these points. And I didn't save them specifically for this purpose. I was really saving the points for hotels in Sydney on a potential trip to Australia. But, that didn't seem like it was happening anytime soon...

I basically transferred all 280,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points 1:1 to United since I am a Chase Sapphire Preferred Cardholder. I transferred the last few miles and booked the flights on 3/31/17 for our trip on 8/28/17.

I earned the miles from sign up bonuses and spending across a bunch of chase cards. But Sarah and I signed up for Chase Ink Plus cards (no longer available) when they had 70,000 and 80,000 point signup bonuses. I also signed up for the Chase Ink Cash (20,000 point signup) and Sarah signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred with a 60,000 point signup bonus + 5,000 points with an authorized user.  I also worked to maximize my Chase Freedom quarterly 5% (5pts per dollar spent) categories and using Chase Ink cards to get 5 pts per dollar at office supply stores.  I think I accumulated these over the course of about 2-3 years simply by taking advantage of good signup bonus opportunties as they came up, knowing that I'd use them in the future.

Overlooking Vernazza in the Cinque Terre

So what's the takeaway? We didn't have to use up all 280,000 miles on this trip, but decided we wanted to try the international business class seats as part of this hobby.  Signup for cards when they have good bonuses (you can see historical data and the best current bonus by looking on flyertalk.com.  And finally, just use the right card for the right purchases in bonus categories. These added up WAY faster because I was vigilant getting 5 points per dollar on as many purchases as possible. If I had simply gotten 1 or 2 points per dollar like I typically would, we'd still be saving up points.

Next post will be about the places we stayed while in Italy.

March 27, 2018

Nine Years Back

Nine years ago today I returned from serving a full time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I served for 18 months in the England London South Mission and it truly was the best mission in the world!

I was recently talking to some of my mission friends and we were reminiscing on our last nights in the mission. I think at the end of something as intense and trying as a mission you can't help but reflect and wonder if you did a good enough job, if you worked hard enough or if God was pleased with you. We all came to the same conclusion- that not matter how much we had seen ourselves fail and struggle we had ultimately worked every single day and completed our time as missionaries with honor. We felt peace that we had done enough, that our work and sacrifice was acceptable to the Lord and that He loved us for how we'd served.

I was eventually companions with all three sisters in this picture of my very first district.

I have often looked back and wondered what more I could have done for those that I taught and served with. While serving I always felt that I was working my hardest but it is so easy to look back and let your failures get the best of you. I am grateful for the members I am still friends with who help me to see that I made a small impact in their wards. I am grateful for the people I taught who continue to live according to the Gospel. I am grateful for those I taught who never accepted the gospel but whose experiences in learning about it changed me forever. And I am especially grateful for my companions who pushed me, loved me, taught me and sometimes annoyed me. I learned so much from them and will always treasure our time together!

Since returning from the best 18 months of my life I have had the best 9 years of my life. It's been filled with struggles and hardships but I can say that it's been wonderful overall. I am not a big goal setting person (don't tell President Swinton) but when I returned from my mission I made it a point to visit the temple as often as I could. In Utah that was easy, I never lived more than 15 minutes from a temple, but when I moved to California it took a little more work to travel the 100 miles to Los Angeles. I decided that I could reasonably go at least once a month and set it as a goal. I often took carloads of friends to LA on Fridays and made a day of it. Other times I went alone or sat in traffic for hours but it was always a good time anyway.

That seemingly simple plan to attend the temple every month has made all the difference in my life. I have been thinking about it's significance lately and it really is the thing that has kept my testimony of the Gospel strong no matter what else seemed to be going wrong. I have gone every single month for the last nine years no matter what- if we were traveling, had a tiny baby, or were so busy our calendars were about to explode. Since the passing of my brother it has meant even more to me and I feel such peace when I am there. I will forever be grateful for my decision to serve a mission and how it set a strong foundation of service in the Church that continues to make my life wonderful today. 

This year I have added to my goal and plan to take Topher there once a month to see the temple and walk around the grounds. I am hoping it will help him love it there as much as I do!
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