Category Archives: My Story

Euro2017 – My Free Trip to Europe

In July of 2017 I took a trip to Switzerland, Austria, and Germany to visit friends, hike in the Alps, drink good beer, and try to salvage my waning German language skills.  I call it a free trip to Europe because by staying with friends and booking award flights, I ended up with very few expenses.  I flew business class on the way over and economy on the way back, with a total out-of-pocket cost of $215.52!

My free trip to Europe - Euro2017

Navigating my content

This post is the touchstone page for all of my trip reports and other posts related to this trip.  Below you will find links to the individual posts, similar to the page I made for our First Class to Europe Anniversary Trip in 2015.

Here’s a basic outline of my vacation so you can get your bearing when browsing the other blog posts:

  1. Fly economy class on American from Minneapolis to Chicago
  2. Fly business class on United and Swiss Air to Zürich via Dublin
  3. Visit friends in Zürich
  4. Overnight stay in Tirol, Austria at Hochzeiger Haus mountain hut
  5. Visit a friend’s mom in Konstanz, Germany and travel by train to Frankfurt
  6. Visit more friends in Frankfurt
  7. Return flight in economy class on France Air, Frankfurt to Minneapolis via Paris

Here are the individual posts and reviews for various parts of the trip, including a detailed explanation of how I planned it, what points and miles programs I utilized, etc.  (Links will become active once the posts are published):

  • Planning a Free Trip to Europe
  • Euro2017 – Cost and Value
  • Lounge Review:  United Polaris Lounge at Chicago (ORD)
  • Flight Review:  United 757-200 Polaris Business Class ORD-DUB
  • Euro2017 Field Report: First Post From 38,000 Feet!
  • Flight Review:  Swiss Air A321 Business Class DUB-ZRH
  • Hotel Review:  Hochzeiger Haus
  • Flight Review:  Air France A340-300 Economy Class CDG-MSP




Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

The Mistake that Cost me a $690 Hotel Room

In this post I will describe the mistake that cost me a free stay at a posh hotel worth over $690.  More importantly, I’ll explain how you can avoid making this mistake!  It was a dumb mistake but I had never been warned about it, so I learned the hard way.

Oh well, sometimes the hard way is the best way to learn something.  But who says is has to be your hard way?  Read on to learn from mine. . .




My plan

The year was 2014.  I had just gotten my feet wet with my first ever points redemption and I was planning my next big trip.  Up to that point I didn’t have any experience with hotel programs; only frequent flier and miscellaneous points programs.  I only had one hotel credit card, the Citi Hilton Reserve.

I was in the middle of secretly planning the surprise European vacation for Nicoleen’s and my 10 year anniversary.  The flights were booked and all I had left to do was reserve a hotel room for the last night of the trip.  We would be flying out of Amsterdam but only spending one night in The Netherlands so I wanted to make it a memorable one.

Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam Goldfinch Brasserie

Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam Goldfinch Brasserie. CC Image courtesy of currystrumpet on Flickr.

What better way to make a one night hotel stay memorable than to book one of the fanciest hotels in the city, right?  (Ah, the fun things you can do when you use value tactics!)  I had my eyes on the new Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam.  The hotel is in the heart of the city and consists of six 17th century palaces, previously owned by the who’s who of the time, including two mayors.

Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, by David van der Mark, Flickr

Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam.  CC Image courtesy of David van der Mark on Flickr.

I planned on using one of my free weekend night certificates from the sign-up bonus on my Citi Hilton Reserve card.  I had already finished the minimum spend for the bonus and was just waiting for the certificates to show up in the mail.

hiltonhhonors

In those ancient days the certificates still came in the physical mail.  What I didn’t know, however, was that the free nights were credited to your account 1-2 weeks before the paper certificates showed up . . .

What actually happened

In my recent post about another trip where I used the same kind of Hilton free nights, I touched on how to find available rooms on the Hilton website. In a nutshell, to use the certificate the room has to be available at the “standard” reward rate.  The standard rate is always a nice round number of points.  In the Waldorf’s case, it’s 95,000 points.

WAA

I knew the room wouldn’t be available forever.  In-demand Hilton properties have a very limited number of rooms available at the standard rate.  I was booking 7 months in advance but it was for July, right in the middle of vacation season in Europe.

Every day I checked the website and every day I still saw the room available I got more and more nervous.  The free night certificates had to be coming soon!

The moment of truth

Finally the certificates arrived in the mail!  This was going to blow Nicoleen away!  Staying at this ridiculously elegant Waldorf Astoria for free would really lock in the first class status of our trip!

That day I didn’t check the Hilton website.  I had just checked the night before.  What were the chances someone booked that particular room on that particular night, and that it was the very last one left at that rate?  I picked up the phone and called the Hilton HHonors booking line.  I told the rep the hotel location, the dates, and the payment method.

“I’m sorry.  That property is not available for that date.”

What??  How??  Sure enough, someone had booked the last room left at the standard rate, 7 months in advance, less than 24 hours before I called to reserve it!




What I should have done

The worst part about the whole deal was that the free nights had been credited to my account for two weeks before I got the certificates.  I could have reserved the room any time during those two weeks and it would have worked.  But no one ever told me about the delay.

According to the Flyertalk wiki the certificates now come via e-mail, and they come as soon as the free nights are credited on your account.  So the particular scenario that I screwed up isn’t a worry anymore.  However, there’s a broader lesson here. . .

The broader lesson for you

The take-away from my mistake isn’t actually about the timing of free night certificates.  It’s about the scarcity of hotel and flight award bookings.

This wasn’t the first time during this trip’s planning phase that I had to settle for my second choice.  When booking our first class transatlantic flight, I had planned flying business class.  For virtually the same seat and service, the business class seats were 50k miles, versus the 62.5k required for first class.  Days before I booked the award flight, all the business class options disappeared.

If the hotel or flight award booking is easily refundable/changeable, lock in your reservation right away!  Desirable award flights and hotel rooms are hot commodities, and they disappear all the time.  Don’t trust them to still be there after you get all your other plans lined up. If you end up changing your mind, most programs allow a quick and convenient way to have your points refunded.

A missed opportunity, but not a disaster

It all worked out in the end for Nicoleen and me.  We ended up staying at my second choice hotel, the Hilton Amsterdam I recently wrote a review of this awesome hotel.  It was not quite as blown out as the Waldorf Astoria, but we still enjoyed it and it served our purpose nicely.

Nicoleen walking down a typical street in Amsterdam, packed with bikes.

We had a great (but short) time in Amsterdam, despite staying in our second choice hotel.  The Hilton Amsterdam is definitely a worthwhile use of a free night certificate!

Some images in this post made available through a Creative Commons license.  Click here for info.

Why my Shed is Full of 40″ Giant Soccer Balls

Kids play with giant soccer ballsEveryone knows that 40″ giant soccer balls are all the rage right now with today’s youngsters.

But the problem is: where can they find these hot, in-demand items?  Aren’t they sold out across the country?  Don’t you see empty shelves every time you stop by your local oversized sports equipment store?

That’s where I come in!  I’m cracking open my special reserve supply of giant 40″ soccer balls and offering them for sale on Amazon, E-bay, in person, and at my upcoming garage sale.

Why do I have a shed full of giant soccer balls?

Well, there’s a bit of a story involved here, but first let me tell you why you should care.  This isn’t the typical type of blog post for this site.  But as I describe in my “about site” page, being a value tactician isn’t all about credit cards and free travel. It’s about spotting valuable opportunities wherever and wherever they present themselves.

On to the story . . .

One day, a little over a year ago, my good friend Jerry calls me up and says, “Do you have room somewhere to store a bunch of huge boxes for a while?”

With 5 kids and a huge horde of free Menards stuff, I’m a little short on space.  So I says to Jerry, I says, “What’s in the boxes and what’s in it for me?”

Jerry then proceeds to tell me about how his dad’s acquaintance was using his dad’s pole shed to store a bunch of giant 40″ soccer balls.  Jerry’s dad had been looking at these things for years and decides he wanted them gone.  After trying unsuccessfully for several months to track down this acquaintance, he tells Jerry to get the balls out of his sight.  He tells Jerry he has 48 hours to do something with them or else he was going to drive them to the dump.

Now Jerry, he’s quite a value tactician in his own right.  He’s not one to let a bunch of humongous mutant sports equipment go to waste.  Seeing the value in these new, in-package balls prompts him to make that call to me, requesting storage space.

So Jerry and I look these things up online and they’re selling for over $80 a pop.  We were right to see the value in these balls!  We do some negotiating, strike a deal for splitting the profit, and before you know it, I got boxes and boxes of giant 40″ soccer balls crammed into my shed.

giant soccer balls

. . . And that’s how I ended up being an ad hoc giant soccer ball salesman!

The value in miscellaneous/opportunistic tactics

Obviously the “giant soccer ball tactic” isn’t really something I can teach to others, since it came about from a once in a lifetime scenario.  But you can apply the same strategy and principles I did to many different situations.

The key is to not automatically dismiss opportunities to make or save money.  Take a second to estimate if it will be worth your time and effort.  Do you think I jumped at the idea of storing, listing, and shipping a huge amount of jumbo soccer balls?  No!  It was only after some brief investigation that I discovered how much potential value the effort might provide.

If I had written off the idea based on my first reaction, I would have missed out on hundreds of dollars of relatively easy income!  And more importantly, children everywhere would be without their 40″ giant soccer balls.  And that’s a world I don’t want to live in.

Some inspirational examples

Spotting valuable opportunities for free money, free stuff, or money savings is something you’ve probably done your whole life.  What I would encourage though, is to open your mind to opportunities you may have ignored in the past.  I highlight a few of these on the Miscellaneous Tactics page.

Here are some other examples I have shown on the ValueTactics Facebook page or in various blog posts:

And don’t forget the $150 worth of free meat, booze, and gift cards I got a few years ago with Small Business Saturday.  (The program no longer gives you free stuff, but that’s part of the point here: take advantage of opportunities when they’re there!)
My 2014 Small Business Saturday haul: 5 bottles of wine, 1 bottle of rum, 6-pack of beer, some jerky and meat sticks, frozen brats and burgers, $50 in movie theater gift cards, and a kid's birthday gift (gift-wrapped, not pictured) ... all for about $11 in odd store totals.

Now your turn!

Notice three of those 4 examples were submitted by readers.  I want to hear about the valuable deals and tactics you have found!  Leave a comment below or interact on the Facebook page!



Year in Review – 2016

One of the goals of Valuetactics.com is to prove that these tactics are worthwhile.  To do that, I provide monthly reports of our points, miles and savings activity.  I also try to provide semi-monthly updates as a way of showing the typical level of valuetactical activity in our household.
updates

My wife and I don’t do manufactured spending.  We don’t do extreme couponing.  We don’t apply for new credit cards as often as humanly possible.  We simply put all our spending on credit cards, strategically apply for good card offers, and make use of other miscellaneous savings tactics.  I think my monthly totals updates are a good representation of what a normal couple could expect, if they take advantage of the tactics on this site.

2016 Totals

Just like my monthly totals, here is our household annual points and miles activity.  (I count redemptions in 2016 if I booked the tickets in 2016, even if the trip will be in 2017.)

Earning

  • earned 90,025 airline miles
  • earned 202,452 hotel points
  • earned 91,473 Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • earned 97,093 Citi Thank-You points
  • earned 64,308 “other” points

Transferring

  • transferred 84,000 Ultimate Rewards to airline and hotel programs
  • transferred 25,000 Citi Thank-You points to an airline program

Redeeming

  • redeemed 35,000 airline miles (+ 83,046 transferred from Chase UR and Citi TY)
  • redeemed 95,000 hotel points (+ 5,000 transferred from Chase UR)
  • redeemed 40,728 Citi Thank-You points
  • redeemed 66,226 “other” points

Total value from redemptions booked in 2016: $15,495.90
Total credit card interest (and annual fees) paid in 2016: $1,149.24
Total interest saved with 0% promotions: $290.90
Free gas tactic savings: $252.45  (a 17.98% overall discount)
Net value for all our efforts: $14,890 !!

You can do it!

I show these results not to brag, but to motivate you to capture some value of your own!  Here are some of my favorite articles to guide you:

Which Card Should I Get?
Are you too disorganized for this stuff? NO!
Tracking is the Key (and why you shouldn’t do it)
3 Years of Collecting Points Could be Worth $77k
Chase Ultimate Rewards: Versatility Matters!
Don’t Hoard Points!
Zeroth World Problems

If you contact me privately, I can walk you through some ideas for which credit cards to get to meet your goals.

And of course you should like the ValueTactics facebook page and join the discussions there!

Here’s to a valuable 2017!
sea-sunset-beach-couple

ValueTactics 100th Blog Post

celebration_title

This special edition marks the 100th blog post at ValueTactics.com!

Two years ago this site was just an idea.  Since then it has grown into what I hope is a valuable resource for those wanting to get free travel, free money, free stuff, and generally maximize value!  Living in a household with 5 kids and 2 full time jobs, I cannot always stay on top of breaking credit card and travel news like other bloggers.  But I have always tried to add some insights or opinions that might be absent on similar websites.

Hawaii 2016

ValueTactics has also been about chronicling my wife’s and my progress in accumulating points and miles, redeeming those points and miles for free vacations, and capturing value with miscellaneous tactics.  In the last 100 blog posts, especially my semi-monthly update posts, I have tried to give readers a realistic expectation of how this stuff all works.  Many times, websites that showcase luxury travel on points and miles are accused of selling a dream.  My goal is to make myself a case study and show you exactly how much and how often you can realistically expect to earn free trips by using the tactics I present here.

You, my loyal readers. . .

ValueTactics doesn’t have a huge readership.  A little under half of my hits come from google searches and other traffic sources.  More than half of my page views are referred from facebook.  That shows me I have a small but dedicated core of readers.  I know who some of you are but many I don’t . . . I would love to hear from you!  Feel free to comment on posts and communicate with me on facebook or e-mail.  I love helping others tap into the joy of learning value tactics!

Site support

Take a quick trip around my corner of the blogosphere.  You will quickly find that most sites similar to ValueTactics are overtly commercial enterprises.  This doesn’t invalidate their content, but it may turn some readers off.  I have tried to keep ValueTactics ad free and self-funded.  The site hosting costs are cheap but not free.  If you wish to support the site, all I would as is that you do three things:

  1. Keep reading!  Knowing I have an audience is what keeps me motivated.
  2. Interact!  Spread the word about the site.  Share posts you find interesting.  Comment on posts and interact on the facebook page.
  3. When it’s time to pull the trigger and get yourself some points-earning credit cards, please check my card offers page and use my links if I list the card you’re looking for.  I am not part of an affiliate program but I get referral points just like any cardholder can.

THANK YOU FOR READING VALUETACTICS.COM!

Some highlights in the last 100 posts:

Maui Vacation Field Report #2

Maui Vacation
Aloha from day 6 of our Maui vacation!  I’m writing this post on my phone on the Kahului Highway. We’re headed to the Hana Highway, although we don’t plan on driving all the way to Hana.  Because of the hotel switch we started the journey a bit late to do the whole trip to Hana and back.  We’ll see some of the sights along the way and then turn around.

Hotel Switch

Today we said goodbye to the Andaz and moved our stuff to the Grand Wailea.  The Andaz was amazing so it was sad to leave, but our room at the Grand Wailea is also super nice:
Jpeg
Jpeg

Weather

Since the last field report the weather has improved greatly!  Even the rainy day we had was not bad at all; we just hung out on the lanai and in the pools/hot tub.  The rain on the south/west coast was forecast to continue through Friday but we haven’t been rained on since Thursday.  It’s been sunny and hot for the most part.  Today it’s cloudy but still hot and humid.

Well, we just pulled into a parking spot in Pa’ia town.  We’re going for a late lunch at Pa’ia Fish Market.

As always, look for frequently updated photos at the ValueTactics Facebook pageAloha!

Maui Vacation Field Report #1

Aloha from paradise!  It’s day 4 of our Maui vacation and I know many of you have been checking out our photo uploads on Facebook.  But for the non-fb crowd I figured I would do a quick update on the blog here.

Where we are now

We spent the first night at a hotel near the airport.  We are now halfway through our 4 night stay at the Maui Andaz in Wailea.  The room and grounds couldn’t be any more beautiful!  The service has also been very friendly and helpful.  Of course it’s even sweeter knowing that the $30 daily valet fee is all we’re paying for our stay here!  (More on that later, in the full trip report.)

Maui Vacation - Andaz at Wailea
Jpeg

Weather

We’re on the dry side of the island.  The weather usually comes from the northeast and drops its rain on the mountainside.  There’s no moisture left when the air gets over the hill, meaning sunny skies most of the time for the south and west sides.  Rain showers are frequent but rarely last longer than an hour.

. . . Except for this week.  Maui and most other Hawaiian islands have had an unusual amount of rain the last few days.  Yesterday it rained most of the day here, which is very unusual based on what everyone has been saying.
wunids_map

Despite the weather, we’re having a great time!  When it rains, the smart people all pile into the hot tub.  In fact, I’ve already had some good points and miles discussions with some fellow enthusiasts in that hot tub.  Great minds think alike!

Today is looking a bit sunnier.  Nicoleen is already out by the pool, sipping orange juice.  I’m not going to keep her waiting any longer.

So long for now!  Aloha!

South Dakota Road Trip

Last month Nicoleen, I, and the 4 oldest kids embarked on our first real family vacation. We anticipated some challenges in traveling with 4 kids aged 8 and under, so we planned a pretty simple and straight forward trip. The plan was for 5 days and 4 nights in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We wanted to camp primarily, but I couldn’t in good conscience plan a whole vacation without getting something for free, so we looked for a hotel in Rapid City where we could recharge after our first day which would mostly be spent in a cramped car.

THE PLANNING PHASE

After the fun traveling Nicoleen and I have done over the past couple of years, we thought the kids deserved to get in on some of the action too.  They are ages 8, 6, 4, 2, and <1 so they are just getting to the age where they will appreciate and remember their travel experiences.  We figured for our first attempt at a family vacation we should do something simple, so flying and dealing with a rental car were out of the question.

We also didn’t want to push our luck on duration, so we settled on a long weekend trip.  Pretty early on in the planning discussions we decided to leave the baby with grandparents.  She would not enjoy the trip, would be a hassle and a half for us, and would take up a lot of space in the car with all her baby gear.  That left us with 2 adults and 4 kids in a Honda Pilot; cramped, but manageable:
sdcar
Living in the Minneapolis area, South Dakota seemed a logical choice.  There’s plenty of stuff to do in any kind of weather, and the 10-11 hour drive is short enough to make in a single day, yet it puts you far enough away to really get away and change the scenery.

THE PLAINS AND BADLANDS

The kids were a bit restless on our long drive from eastern Minnesota to western South Dakota.  I will definitely have to spend more time reading Mommy Points and Points with a Crew for some tips on traveling with kids.  By the time we reached the Badlands we were all ready to stretch our legs and burn off some energy.  We took the Badlands loop highway (Hwy 240) and got out to climb around a bit.  The heat in early June was downright oppressive.
sdbadlands1
sdbadlands2

RAPID CITY

The first night of our trip we stayed at the Holiday Inn at Rushmore Plaza in Rapid CityClick here for a full review of the hotel and for some of my logic on choosing it.  We arrived long after the kids’ bed time and had a challenge getting the little buggers to sleep in our oversized room.  But eventually they succumbed:

sdsleeping

Those are some tuckered out kids!

The hotel was more than we expected in terms of amenities, cleanliness, and decor.  Read the COST BREAKDOWN down below to see what a deal we got (HINT: it was free!)

BLACK HILLS

Overall the Black Hills is a wonderfully diverse and accessible area for kids and adults alike, with plenty of variety in recreation opportunities. I had been to the Black Hills several times as a kid, and Nicoleen and I went there together in 2004. For the main segment of our trip we set a few ground principles:

  • We won’t try to see everything in one trip. First of all it’s impossible. Second of all, it relieves the pressure to make it to any given attraction; we can always hit it the next time we’re here.
  • We won’t plan our days in advance. Especially because the kids are along, we need to stay flexible. This will also help us deal with any bad weather we might get. Having one or two rainy day activities in the hopper at any given time will help greatly if the skies don’t cooperate.
  • Let’s not fill up every day with activities. The campground has a pool and lots of rocky areas to explore. The kids will have just as much fun roaming around as they will on a structured outing, and mom and dad will probably need some down time to just sit and have a beer.

These principles ended up being pretty helpful. Of course we did a few of the must-see attractions like Mt. Rushmore, the wildlife loop at Custer State Park, and Needles Highway.

The whole family (less the baby), squinting for the camera at Mt. Rushmore. It was in the upper 90s by noon.

The whole family (less the baby), squinting for the camera at Mt. Rushmore. It was in the upper 90s by noon.

Rushmore cave

Rushmore cave

. . . but the kids’ best memories of the trip will probably be of swimming at the campground pool, climbing around the rock outcrop behind the campsite, swimming, meeting little friends from neighboring sites, and swimming.
sdfam

RAFTER J-BAR RANCH CAMPGROUND

For our three nights in the tent, we chose Rafter J-Bar Ranch Campround outside of Hill City, SD. I have stayed at Rafter J-Bar on most of my previous Black Hills trips and year after year it continues to deliver.

We stayed in the main camp, at site #2, which is right across the road from the office/store and pool. The whole place is very clean and well taken care of. Our site with no electric was $43.95 +tax per night. That’s spendy for a tent site, but still cheaper than a hotel.
sdcampground
Nicoleen and I were disappointed to find out that the campground was no longer a “ranch campground,” as they emptied the stables several years ago and no longer offer trail rides. However, we were happy to see that not much else has changed. The staff is still friendly, the pool is still wet, and kids still enjoy exploring the natural areas.
sdrockold

Rocks don't change. Me in 1992 and my kids in 2016!

Rocks don’t change. Me in 1994 and my kids in 2016!

COST SUMMARY

Lodging (hotel): $0.00
Lodging (camping): $139.10
Fuel cost: estimated $175
Food, Shopping, Entertainment: estimated (very ballpark) $300

Total cost for 4-night road trip to South Dakota: ~$604.10
Savings from using value tactics: at least $215.55

COST BREAKDOWN

Although this trip didn’t utilize a lot of free travel tactics, we used value tactics throughout.  We put all our spending on credit cards to earn more points and miles and we bought a cooler full of food before we left home, to keep our dining costs down.  We also realized that with all these young kids along, simple activities like the swimming pool and campfires would be just as fun for them (and free) than trying to cram every day full of paid entertainment.

Travel Cost:
sdpilot_smNicoleen’s loaded down Honda Pilot got around 17-18 mpg on average.  The constant air conditioning and many hills brought the fuel economy down.  We spent about $175 on gas.  There weren’t any Super Americas along our way, so we were unable to utilize our normal free gas tactics.

 

Lodging:
The campground was $139.10 for three nights.  This seems expensive for camping but it’s a tourist area so all the rates are higher.  Even so, it’s not a bad price for 3 nights’ lodging for 6 people!  The hotel was a different story: we got a room that retails for $215.55 and paid $0.00 for it!  It cost us 35,000 IHG points, for a redemption value of 0.62 cents per point.  Not a very good rate, but it was still nice to get the hotel at no cost!

Food, Shopping, and Entertainment:
This part is very subjective and reporting my costs here is pretty meaningless.  You can spend what you want on these parts of the trip.  We were pretty frugal and only spent around $300.  It seemed like we got little snacks along the way whenever we wanted, so in that sense we didn’t hold back.  But I think bringing that huge cooler full of food and drink really helped this cost stay down.

OVERALL this was a very fun trip!  The kids were a challenge sometimes but I think they really got a lot of good memories out of the deal.  Road trips are hard to work value tactics into, but the free night at the hotel was definitely a welcome segment of the trip.