Tuesday, October 07, 2014

What Disney Benefits Do and Don't Convey at Four Seasons Orlando?

Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World
Although Four Seasons Orlando is technically within Walt Disney World, the benefits of staying at a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel don't 100% convey. Understanding which benefits do and don't convey is important when deciding whether to stay at a Disney Resort or another property. The answer depends on what's important to you.

See also: Full Review of Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World

Here's a list of benefits of staying at Disney Resort. I thought it would be useful to discuss each of these in a little more detail.

Disney Benefit: Complimentary Airport Service (doesn't convey)


Disney provides ground transportation in the form of Disney's Magical Express which is a motor coach that goes from the Orlando airport to Disney World hotels. An additional benefit of this service is that they can collect your bags for you and deliver them to your hotel room. This can be nice if you come dressed for your day and you can head straight to the parks while you wait for your room to be available.

Personally I find this approach to be a potential point of anxiety. Leaving the airport without your luggage and hoping it's collected and delivered your hotel is a bit disconcerting. And checking bags in the first place is increasingly a source of additional cost. I prefer to pack light, check all our bags and take matters into our own hands.

Pro Tip: Get there using points & miles earned with flexible rewards credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred

To get to Four Seasons Orlando from MCO you can pay for a bus, rent a car, take a taxi, or arrange for a town car. We went with a town car in part due to the unavoidable valet-only daily parking fee (I think it was $24). I emailed the resort and they made the arrangements. We met our driver at baggage claim (he had an iPad with our name on it) and he took us and our bags directly to the hotel. Our flight got in at noon, and we were at the pool by 1:00 pm thanks to an early check-in. Total cost: $155 plus gratuity.

We requested and received an early check-in at the Four Seasons thanks in part to booking our reservation through a Four Seasons Preferred Partner travel agency.

Both forms of transportation (the Disney Magical Express and the towncar we went with) are operated by Mears. On one hand you get right into the Disney experience with the Magical Express. On the other you get a more efficient, private experience with the town car.

Advantage Disney, but I really prefer the town car approach.

Disney Benefit: Complimentary Resort Transportation & Parking (doesn't convey, but Four Seasons has their own motor coaches)


One of 2 Four Seasons motor coaches. Always right on time. Never crowded.
To get between their parks and hotels, Disney offers a combination of busses, boats, and monorails. No single resort is near all of the parks though, so it's key to select a resort based on location, you'll likely find yourself using a variety of Disney resort transportation options.

Even if you're not staying at a Disney Resort Hotel you can still take advantage of the Disney transportation options. For example to get between Magic Kingdom and EPCOT you can take a monorail. Or to get between any two theme parks you can take a bus. They key difference in transportation options between various hotels is getting to and from your first/last park of the day.
October 2014 Four Seasons Orlando bus schedule.
Pro tip: Snap a picture of it with your smartphone upon arrival.
Four Seasons offers their own private motor coaches that travel on two circuits. One goes between the Four Seasons, Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, then back to the Four Seasons. The other goes between the Four Seasons, Magic Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom. I appreciated that the Four Seasons bus runs on a schedule (whereas it's not always clear when the next Disney bus comes in my experience). So although the Four Seasons bus not come as frequently as the Disney busses, if you plan ahead a bit you can catch it without much standing around.

Advantage Disney (depending on which hotel you stay at) but the Four Seasons motor coach is uncrowded and runs on a reliable schedule.

Disney Benefit: Extended Theme Park Hours (doesn't convey)


Each day one of the Disney parks opens early or stays late for Disney Resort guests. This benefit is not available to Four Seasons Hotel guests. It's a bit surprising actually since this benefit does convey to Dolphin/Swan guests (a Starwood property also within Disney World) and even to the Hilton Orlando by Downtown Disney.

For park warrior types that hit each park early to avoid long lines at marquee attractions this may be a deal breaker. But for those visiting just a few parks during a visit, or if you're not into hitting parks right when they open this may not be that big a deal.

Keep in mind that on days when Magic Kingdom opens early, the entire park doesn't open early. For example last year when we had Extra Magic Hours (since we stayed at the Swan) we wanted to hit Pirates, Jungle Cruise, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain yet Adventureland and Frontierland didn't open until the regular park opening time. And on nights when EPCOT stays open late you can easily stay late even if you're not staying at a Disney Resort hotel - you just can't go on any rides. Since you'll probably be there to eat and watch fireworks this may not be a problem.

Still, it's nice to get in early to parks with long lines at rides you want to go on. So...

Advantage Disney.

Disney Benefit: MagicBands (doesn't convey, but...)


MagicBands are a newish invention whereby rather than having a plastic card with a magnetic strip and RF ID that stores your park tickets and FastPass+ reservations you wear the equivalent on your wrist.

I don't mind using my card. Draw.

Disney Benefit: FastPass+ (conveys, but only 30 days out)


FastPass is a handy invention whereby you can make a "reservation" to go on a popular ride within a 1 hour time slot. It used to be that you had to visit the attraction and get a paper ticket to come back later. With FastPass+ you can make reservations without going to the attraction using your smartphone. Or you can even book FastPass+ reservations before you arrive at the park. Months in advance in fact.

Disney Hotel guests can make FastPass+ reservations 60 days out, Four Seasons guests can book them 30 days out.

I was bummed when I discovered this but quickly realized I wasn't enjoying planning our trips so much so far in advance. Dining reservations are one thing but deciding which days to visit which parks ahead of time (what if it rains? what if we're tired?) let alone which time to go on which rides was too much for me.

Advantage Disney for planners. Otherwise no big deal.

Disney Benefit: Disney Dining Plans (doesn't convey)


I'm not a fan of Disney's dining plans. I prefer to just pay for what we eat. We don't always spend the entire day at the parks, and sometimes we get by with just snacking (for example at the Magic Kingdom where compelling food options scarce).

That said I know some people who get a lot of value out of the Disney Dining Plans so if they work well for you and it's part of an enjoyable vacation experience where you pay for your meals and snacks up front it's definitely something to be aware of because the ability to purchase a Disney Dining Plan is contingent on staying at a Disney Resort Hotel.

Our stay at the Four Seasons included room service breakfast each day for two adults. A bountiful, beautifully presented affair delivered to our room each morning right on time. Our kids would typically order pancakes or waffles for $6 plus tax and delivery charge which we'd supplement with bits of our feasts. Worked out great. Nice way to start the day.
In-room dining at Four Seasons Orlando
I know I wouldn't typically spend $100 a day on breakfast but this does help soften the blow of the Four Seasons room rate. We also received a $100 food & beverage credit to be used throughout our stay thanks to the Preferred Partner booking.

Disney Benefit: Resort Hotel Entertainment (doesn't convey, but Four Seasons is better)


Depending on the Disney Resort Hotel you're staying at, they may offer outdoor movies, pools with slides and such. They might also consider character breakfasts a piece of resort entertainment.

Character breakfasts are available at a number of Disney resorts and even within the parks. They're not typically exclusive to guests of that hotel nor to Disney Resort Hotel guests at all. We visited the one at the Grand Floridian a few years back while staying off-property. It was okay. A bit hectic as you'd imagine with a heavy carb/calorie laden buffet.

Four Seasons offers a character breakfast at their Ravello restaurant with Goofy, Mickey, and Minnie. The food selections are terrific with fresh berries, local fruits, cheeses, and honey. Eggs/omelettes made to order and charcuterie. It's terrific.


But really when it comes to resort entertainment I've never seen anything like Four Seasons Orlando. A lazy river, splash pad, a teen hangout, rock climbing wall, waterslides, you name it. What was so impressive about it was that there's something for every age group. And it never feels crowded.

Advantage Four Seasons.

Disney Benefit: Legendary Disney Service (Four Seasons service is better)


The service at Disney Hotels varies, but the service at the Four Seasons is unparalleled. They're never stuffy or pretentious. They just intuitively know how to give each guest what they're looking for.

Just a couple examples of what I'm talking about...

Say you want to visit the pool. At some resorts you need to present your room key to get a towel or two. And if  you're lucky they'll bring you reliable food & beverage service after that. At the Four Seasons as soon as a guest enters the pool area you're greeted by an attendant that sets you and your family up with towels over your chaise lounge or cabana, extra towels for drying off, ice water, and a menu. Then they come back and check on you in a non-annoying way at regular intervals.

Another example: On the morning we were checking out of the Four Seasons there were 3 other people checking out at the same time. And a couple of spouses standing behind them. I was behind the spouses for about 15 seconds and yet another desk clerk appears out of nowhere and apologizes for the long wait. Contrast this with queues to check-in at some Disney properties. Have you ever seen the lobby at the Grand Californian? It's a beautiful craftsman inspired lodge where people practice the art of waiting in line.

In my experience Disney does a great job running theme parks. Outside of that I have some concerns...

Advantage Four Seasons.

Disney Benefit: Childcare (not really an explicit Disney benefit, but Four Seasons is better)


This isn't necessarily a Disney Resort Hotel benefit so to speak but some Disney Hotels do offer kids clubs and it is a big differentiator if you have young kids.

All hotels say they can arrange for private babysitting. But I don't know anyone who has actually taken advantage of that. However, I know a lot of people who enjoy a kids club if it's presented in a way that's easy to take advantage of. Some Disney hotels have kids clubs. And Camp Dolphin (at the Starwood Swan & Dolphin) offers 2 hours free if you dine at one of their hotel restaurants. That's a decent option and you don't even have to be staying at the hotel.
Amazing counselor to child ratio at Kids for All Seasons
Counselors even know which team Messi plays for!
But the Kids for All Seasons program takes it to another level. Open from 9-5 each day you can drop your kids ages 4-12 off for complimentary supervised play. With the lazy river, waterslides, and pools it took our guys a couple days to be interested in KFAS but when the saw they had all the latest gaming systems there it provided a nice afternoon relief to the blazing hot sun. And an opportunity for us to visit the adults-only pool area.

Advantage Four Seasons.

Conclusion & Recommendations


The Four Seasons Orlando isn't for everyone. But if you're planning a trip to Disney World and you're considering some of the pricier Disney Resorts I'd highly recommend checking whether the Four Seasons might be a better option for you.

In conjunction with no-expiration park tickets and every other day park visits we returned from our Disney World vacation more rejuvenated than prior Disney Parks visits. It felt, finally, like a vacation.

For more information and to check rates visit: http://fourseasons.com/orlando

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Drop me an email or ping me on Twitter (@RobertDwyer) with questions or comments.

Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Review

Our guys enjoying the Splash Zone
In the past couple years we've taken family trips I've felt that, if combined, would produce the perfect vacation. We stayed at the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara (review) north of San Diego, visited Disneyland and (separately) Walt Disney World. One thing Disney does really well is theme parks. What Four Seasons does really well is hotels. With the arrival of Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World the perfect combination was realized: Four Seasons lodging with Disney Parks.

Booking


Four Seasons likes to operate at the top of the pricing range in any market which they operate. Disney sets the mark high with their Deluxe resorts. When I checked rates, Four Seasons Orlando was around the same price as Disney's BoardWalk Inn. Here's a useful rate comparison of Four Seasons Orlando to other Four Seasons and Disney Deluxe Resorts from Touring Plans.

You see, for as much as I like Disney Parks I've got my concerns with them as a hotelier. Four Seasons on the other hand has blown me away with their style of service each time we've visited one of their properties.

See: These Disney Cruises Infuriate Me - Why do I keep booking them? 

For the the dates we visited in early October Four Seasons Orlando was $545 per night. But they were offering a third night free promotion which would bring the price down to $363 a night if booked in 3 night increments. A four night stay works out $408 a night. Since the BoardWalk was booking for around $500 a night before discounts this was a rate I could justify in my mind.

One thing people might not realize when booking high end hotels like Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, etc is that although discounts on these properties are hard to come by you can often stack the best available offer with additional promotions offered as benefits through certain credit cards and/or travel agents.

For example the American Express Platinum Card offers a Fine Hotel & Resorts program where you can get benefits like free breakfast, early check-in/check-out, a $100 food & beverage credit and more on top of the best package a hotel might be offering.

See also: Mandarin Oriental Boston Review

If you don't have an AmEx Platinum consider establishing a relationship with a Four Seasons Preferred Partner travel agent. It should cost you nothing additional to book your stay through them and some great benefits like complimentary daily breakfast and an additional food & beverage credit will convey on top of the best available rates. I booked through Brownell Travel. Drop me an email if you'd like a referral.

See also: Four Seasons Chicago with Kids

Pre-Arrival


One thing I love about the Four Seasons is how easy they make it to communicate with them. They never make you feel like you've contacted the wrong department. They just take care of your request no matter how you've routed it.

For example I considered booking ground transportation from MCO to the resort through a discount offered on MouseSavers. But the deals were on the order of $10 so I just contacted the Four Seasons via email in their response to inquiry to see if they could do anything to make our stay more comfortable. They arranged a towncar for $155 round-trip which is on par with what it should cost. Without any additional intervention on my part and just a moment to compose an email ground transport was taken care of.

Similarly I secured a reservation for a character breakfast at the resort. A quick email in response to their outreach is all it took and the reservation was secured.

How many times have you talked to a business and they told you that you needed to route your request to a different department? That never happens at the Four Seasons. They just take care of it.

With 443 rooms the Orlando property is the largest Four Seasons Hotel

Arrival


In my experience, nobody orchestrates an arrival better.

As an aside I will say that hiring a town car or taxi gets you on property faster than renting a car or taking Disney's Magical Express. Our flight got in at noon and we were at the hotel by 1 pm. And down at pool moments later.

Upon arrival we were greeted with the customary "Welcome to the Four Seasons" and the bellmen took our bags. We were escorted to the front desk to check in. While I was taking care of the details my wife and kids checked out the Disney planning desk and Disney World touch screen flat panel they have set up nearby. The desk agent escorted us to the elevators and we were headed up to the 10th floor.

We reserved a standard room and received a modest upgrade to a Golden Oak View room.

Room


Golden Oak View Room with King Bed and Pull-out Sofa
Although the room we stayed technically "just" a regular hotel room with a combined sleeping are and adjacent bathroom it was quite large (500sf) and extremely well appointed. Although the exterior of the hotel is set in a Spanish revival/Tuscan motif to match the Golden Oak residential community it is situated within, the interior is trendier and more contemporary. The appointments felt comfortable yet rich and sophisticated to me.
Bathroom with double sinks, soaking tub, shower, and WC
The bathroom had double sinks, separate tub and shower and water closet.An in-mirror TV ensured our kids could watch cartoons while showing/taking a tub after a day in the pools. And I could watch SportsCenter while shaving.
Well good afternoon to you in-mirror TV!
The bed is insanely comfortable and the overall in-room experience is carefully designed to provide the best night of sleep of your life. After days visiting the parks or relaxing by the pools I slept the sleep of angels and wondered what we could do to make our bed at home more like the one there (we've already got the pillows).

Rounding things out were toiletries from C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries, a Bose Soundlink bluetooth speaker (that you could use to stream high quality music from your smartphone), and robes for every member of the family - even little ones for the kids.

Just when we got done gawking at the room our luggage arrived. They've got the timing down perfectly. We debated heading over to the parks for the afternoon but we were drawn to the pools to check out what the resort had to offer.

Property

Family-friendly Explorers Pool
The pool area includes a tranquil adults only pool, a kid-friendly family pool, an impressive splash pad for younger kids, an incredibly fun lazy river, and dueling 242-foot waterslides.
Cabana use was complimentary during our stay but will go for $200/day
What pleased me most about the expansive pool are was how there was something for everyone. If you wanted to set yourself up in a shady secluded area near the lazy river you could. If you wanted a sunny spot near the pool area that was available too.
Lazy river featured a great mix of slow and fast portions
What I was thinking as we were enjoying ourselves was how I could see every member of every family I know finding something fun to do somewhere at the resort.
Dueling 242-foot water slides are perfect for racing. Again and again and again.
During our stay we experienced pouring rain, blazing heat, and surprisingly chilly morning temperatures. We enjoyed the pools under almost all of these conditions but I think its value would be at its peak during the warmest months when the parks are unbearably hot.

Service


The biggest area where Four Seasons differentiates itself is how it offers personalized intuitive service that anticipates guest needs effortlessly. It's really quite amazing.

For example, in the pool area when a guest enters the area they are consistently greeted by an attendant and "set up" with towels over chaise lounges and additional towels for drying off. Fresh ice water is provided and a food & drink menu is provided. No pressure, but they check in every 15 minutes or so to see if there's anything they can offer. Contrast this with other resorts where you're lucky to get a couple towels and occasion drink service. The difference is amazing.

Nobody "sets you up" better than Four Seasons
Probably the most striking difference between the Four Seasons and Disney properties is the utter lack of crowds. The hotel wasn't at capacity when we visited (all of the rooms aren't even built out yet) but I get the sense that even if it were at 100% capacity it still wouldn't feel crowded. There were so many chairs in the pool area. And not just rows and rows of chairs - all kinds of little pockets where you could set up depending on your mood and interest in getting sun, shade or a nap.

Another example of the Four Seasons service standard: When we were checking out there were a few other couples also talking with desk clerks. After 15 seconds or so yet another desk clerk appeared an apologized for keeping me waiting. For 15 seconds? No worries. But if you compare this to some high end Disney resorts where long waits aren't unusual - the Four Seasons difference is striking.

The resort offers their Kids for All Seasons program on a drop-in basis from 9-5 each day. The counselor to child ratio is incredible. If there are just a few kids there they tailor the activities to the kids liking. When there are more kids they operate on schedule with group activities like water balloons, swimming, and outdoor activities.
Kids club features a volcano and an amazingly high counselor to child ratio
What I liked best about the Kids for All Seasons program is the amazingly easy drop-in nature of it. Our first day there the kids were checking out the property and didn't have time to think about checking in.
Outdoor games included foosball, billiards and table tennis
The second day there we spent the whole day by the pool. By around 2 pm it was very hot out and we were all ready for a break. We dropped them at the kids club and headed over to the adults only pool. The chaise lounges were even more comfortable there and I feel asleep poolside for, I think, the first time ever. It was truly paradise.
Tranquil adults only pool features cabanas with double chaise lounges
Every single person we interacted with at the resort was amazingly kind and friendly in a non-stuffy kind of way. More notably than anything the Four Seasons Orlando, within the Golden Oak community within Walt Disney World is an enclave within an enclave that provides peaceful retreat after a hectic day at the parks.

Dining


Our room rate included daily breakfast for two adults. We chose to take this as room service and added reasonable $6 choices for the kids which resulted in a very nice start to the day. Passing around the in-room iPad mini to make selections the night before was fun and each morning breakfast was deliver precisely at the requested time.
Room service breakfast
The poolside dining options were served up by their "PB+G" restaurant (pool bar & grill). During our stay I tried the fish tacos, the burger, and an off the menu pulled pork sandwich. For me, the burger was best. At $20 it was pricey as you might expect but very much worth it.
Outstanding $20 burger with a nice assortment of beers available
Twice a week they offer a Disney character breakfast featuring Mickey & Pals. We did a character breakfast at the Grand Floridian a few years back and it was a hectic gut-busting affair. In contrast the character breakfast at the Four Seasons featured fresh berries, local cheeses, honey, and fruits. Appealing charcuterie and eggs/omelettes made to order made it one of the more enjoyable meals we experienced.

The buffet was beautifully laid out. They even had a section set up for kids at their height so they could see and select items for themselves. Brilliant!
Kid-friendly section of the Ravello buffet - presented at kids' height
Highly recommended, but I think I made a tactic mistake with the character breakfast given the package we booked. That morning we didn't take advantage of our daily breakfast and although the resort made it clear the character breakfast wasn't included in the free breakfast offer I thought they might knock $32 off our bill (or some accommodation for the complimentary breakfast we didn't enjoy in-room that morning). When I asked about this at check-out I was told that the character breakfast was excluded from the free breakfast offer so I let it go. This was my only minor point of disappointment in our stay.
Character breakfast with Goofy & Pals was a hit!
The resort is incredibly family-friendly. When we checked in they gave the kids "passports" that they needed to get stamped at each area of the resort. Once they filled their books up they could redeem them for tokens for free gelato at Lickety-Split.
Kids earn a free gelato for getting their FS Orlando "passports" stamped
While relaxing by the pool I asked to see a wine list for the main resort restaurants that hadn't opened yet. (In case you didn't know I've written a wine blog since 2008). Our attendant tracked one down and I had a look just for fun. I was pleased to my wine of the year a few years back - Cigliuti Serraboella Barbaresco. And as any good list should - Juan Gil was available. Whew - I don't know how I'd survive otherwise. ;)
Nice list, especially for Italian and Spanish reds
A Cuban restaurant (at the adjacent Tranquilo golf course) and a Brazilian Steakhouse are coming soon. We'll have to go back to check them out!

Conclusion & Recommendations


At a cost that's in line with Disney Deluxe Resorts and accommodations, and amenties and service that are far beyond, I consider Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World to be a value. All things considered it is a nearly perfect family-friendly luxury resort.

But I was thinking what could possibly make it better? A private beach on the ocean I guess. You look at some of the best beachfront resorts in the world and that obviously isn't possible in Orlando. And while Orlando is great it doesn't have the exotic feel of say Hawaii or the Maldives. And it doesn't have the residential feel some rental options offer.

But for what it is I think it's nearly perfect.

My Rating:
98/100 points
5 out of 5 stars

I'll hope to go deeper into comparisons between this resort and other splurge-worthy options and discuss which Disney Resort benefits do and don't convey when staying at the Four Seasons in future blog posts.

I'd love it if you subscribed for updates.

Drop me an email or ping me on Twitter (@RobertDwyer) with questions or comments.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Go to Michigan!

This is a post by 9 year old Sam Dwyer
Sam with his largemouth bass fresh out of lake Osterhout 

Dedication


This book is dedicated to My Dad because he takes me on these vacations, pays for them and plans them so I made this in return for him.


Introduction


Go to Michigan! (not in the winter!) Yes I know it shares a border with Canada and in the winter it gets fffrrrrreeeeezzzzziiiiiiiiinnnnnnnggggggg! Brrrrrrr. But in the summertime it gets really warm and it’s nice in South Haven (If you want you can call it South Heaven!!) Because it has a tropical environment with a harbor, marina, pier, a small shipyard, (yes a small shipyard!!!)

A sign at the jet ski rental place

And then at the harbor there is Jet-ski rental, speedboats, yachts and fishing boats. Plus there two beaches. The south beach, and the north beach. And two lighthouses. the red one which is older and is red, and there is a newer one that's green and has a small beacon that flashes on and off and the red one has a big beacon that goes round and round. The red one is on the north beach side and the green one is on the south beach side. Did you know that cruise ships from Chicago docked there! There’s also a pirate ship that goes out to sea and shoots a cannon into lake Michigan and sails back to the dock! Ok it might be a little hard to fall asleep but they only do it once. “But where do you sleep?” you ask well there are condos and summerhouses. there are lots of good ones including ones that are right next to the beach and the harbor!

Entertainment


The Mayor of South Haven riding in a car at the parade
In South Haven (or heaven) there is lots of fun entertainment. There is a parade where they throw candy, blueberry picking, cherry picking, fireworks, and much much more.

The Pirate Ship leaving The Harbor
The pirate ship is awesome because they go out to sea. Just plug your ears because they shoot a cannonball out of a cannon off the side into the water! People gather up on the piers and watch them shoot it. Now if you want lots and lots of fun then rent a jet-ski! Just think about it. If you buy one then you will pay a lot more money plus you need to give it oil and fuel and get it fixed plus you need a trailer to carry it around. So it’s totally worth it! Yes I know that the water can be pretty cold but it usually not too too bad. You can also just rent a bike and zip around. I've even seen people who got a moped and sped around. Wow that sounds really fun!

Dining and Food


Sam and his mom at Clementine's 
In Michigan “where will you eat” you ask. Well, there is lots of good restaurants like Clementines which is the most fine dining in South haven by my opinion. They also have the best onion rings in South Haven. Ok that’s also by my opinion too! Then there is Su casa which means your house in Spanish. They have the best tacos in town.
Everyone at Subs n' more 
At Subs n’ more they have okay pizza, great subs, cheesy french fries and FREE CANDY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! okay they don’t really have free candy they just have a broken jelly bean machine that gives you free candy. We go there because it’s right behind our condo so we just take the elevator down to the underground parking garage, walk up the stairs, walk past the trash room, past the pool, out the back of the condo, across the street, across the parking lot, and in the back door. Can you believe all of this food? i better take a run! What if you want to make your own food? You can go to the Village market which is an everyday supermarket. looking for seafood?


Captain Lou's
Then go to Captain Lou’s. I think they have fresh fish caught off the pier! If you just want to get something basic they have Taco-bell and Domino's pizza.

Everyone on The Idler 
The opposite of that is the Idler and it is a restaurant and bar on a boat! It’s in the harbor and has great food. But what will you do for breakfast? Well, you can go to the Golden brown and get the best and only doughnuts in town. “What’s for dessert?”

Will getting to eat a Pig's dinner
Well you can go to Sherman’s dairy because they have the best ice cream in the universe!!! Wow can you believe how much food there is!

The People


The people in Michigan are really upbeat and kind they are never mean to me. Hmmmm let’s think there’s lot’s of sun so there happy. I’m not surprised because of all the good stuff!

Shopping


In Michigan there’s lot’s of shopping from dollar stores to sporting stores. Here's great advice: DON’T GO TO FAMILY DOLLAR OR DOLLAR GENERAL!!!!!! Because at Family dollar everything is expensive (so it’s not a dollar store) and it’s dirty so don’t go there and at Dollar general It’s just expensive (so it’s not a dollar store either.) If you're looking for a good dollar store then go to Dollar Tree (don’t worry it’s a genuine dollar store.)

A nice patch of fresh Michigan blueberries
Like blueberries? Well then there’s a place for you! You can go to The Blueberry Store. everything there is made from blueberries. From blueberries to blueberry gum-balls! If you like sports visit Dunham's sporting goods. They have great sports stuff to play with.

Transportation


In Michigan how will you get around? I mean transportation is really important. Well, it depends on how you get there. If you get there by plane it’s about two hours. If you get there by car and take breaks to rest at hotels it will take you about 48 hours!!! If you don’t want to pay much then drive because all you have to pay for is tolls and fuel. It’s worth it because you see landmarks on the way. If you want to pay more and have it take less time then go on a plane. The only way to be able to drive around to get places in South haven is to get a rental car. Just rent from Hertz. But if you can find a good deal and do a bit of research then you can just get it. And that’s how you will get around

Weather


In Michigan the weather is nice. Usually in summer the weather is hot and nice so don’t forget your sunscreen. But too much humidity brings a summer storm but that’s not too bad. Just bring along an umbrella. But in the winter it’s always cold or snowing. And that’s the weather report!

Exercise


The red pier in the morning 
Okay so remember all that food? Well, you don’t want to get overweight do you? If you don’t I recommend that you take a walk through the harbor or down one of the piers to work off last nights desert. For a real athlete you can run down the red pier and then go over the drawbridge and down the green one and back to the condo!

Will skimboarding

You also can boogie board and skim board. But don’t worry it’s not salt water so no sharks. No salt just sand. And that’s why you should go to Michigan!

Ending


So if you want to go to paradise then just stop reading and plan a trip to Michigan!

Acknowledgments


Thank you Matthew for giving me ideas for chapters, writing “Go to Bahamas” and reading this over for me. And for Mason for looking at me while I typed this up. And to Mrs. Theriault for liking this and saying I could just type this instead of making me write more persuasive stories. And last but not least My Dad for taking me there!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

10 Lessons Learned While Racking up 1,000,000 Points & Miles

Points & miles has been an area of interest I've been exploring the past couple years. I'd estimate that you can make roughly 10-20%+ of your annual income in deeply discounted travel by navigating this space. And it's one of those things where you can get 80% of the benefit with 20% of the work so it's worth learning about even if you don't make it a hobby.

I'm naturally predisposed to playing this game. I'm open to considering any deal - just tell me the terms and I'll let you know if I think it's a good deal. I also think I'm genetically predisposed to it. My 99 year old grandmother has an upright electric organ in her living room. Over the years every one of her children and great-grandchildren have enjoyed playing on that thing. And she got it by, you guessed it: Signing up for a checking account.

In the past year I've leveraged a variety of techniques to earn 1,000,000+ points and miles. I wouldn't say it's "easy" but I will say that anyone who is interested in this game can do it. As long as you're 18, have a job, and a good credit score (more here on whether signing up for credit cards hurts your credit score) you can start playing this game. Just start slow, read a lot, and do what you're comfortable with.

See also: 10 Reasons why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is my favorite travel credit card

Here are 10 lessons I learned on the way to 1,000,000+ points & miles...

1. Credit card signup bonuses are where it's at (and there is more leverage in points & miles than cashback)


Say you spend $3,000/month on credit cards. If you get 2% back on all your purchases that's $720 a year - hardly enough to fly a family of four on a single vacation.

A better use of your credit card spending is towards meeting minimum spending requirements on new credit cards. The signup bonuses are more lucrative for travel rewards cards than cashback cards and there are more of them. Plus, when it comes time to redeem points & miles there is potentially more leverage in points & miles than cashback. Cash is king but it takes a lot of cash to fly internationally - especially in premium cabins. Points & miles make these things possible so there's more leverage in points & miles than cashback.

That said, there's nothing wrong with working some cashback into the mix if you have a card that earns 5% cashback buying cash equivalents. You can then take that cashback and either buy travel if the price is right or buy points & miles if award availability is favorable. More on this approach here.

2. The path to what you want is often counter-intuitive


If you're in the market for a rewards credit card, you'd think it would make sense to get co-branded credit cards from companies you enjoy doing business with. Say for example you enjoy going to Disney and flying JetBlue - you'd think it would make sense to get a Chase Disney card and the JetBlue AmEx. That's actually a rather poor approach.

It's not that the cards themselves are so terrible (trust me I've had them both). It's more a mater of there being better options out there. And each credit card you apply for takes up a "slot" from each issuing bank. And each credit card you apply for requires a hard credit pull which temporarily diminishes your credit score.

When I first started out in this game I didn't want to rack up a bunch of United miles to fly in the grey cramped seats on the back of their airplanes for vacation. But I found I could United miles to fly in premium cabins to Europe on Lufthansa. Great deal!

Conversely I could use Lufthansa miles (obtained by signing up for a Barclays Lufthansa Miles & More credit card and transferred from the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest program) to fly on United domestically in First Class for just 17k miles each way (a much better deal than 25k each way United charges). Similarly I could transfer American Express Membership Rewards to Singapore Airlines for 40k roundtrip domestically on United in First Class.

Or I could use British Airways Avios to pay for short haul domestic flights on American Airlines. Or Avianca Miles to fly on Star Alliance partners. Or credit Star Alliance flights to Aegean Airlines for Gold status. The list is goes on and on.

More than anything, it baffles me when a company has a credit card that isn't even the best option to use when spending money with that company. For example, it's better to use a Starwood Business card to pay for a Hyatt stay than a Chase Hyatt card. Bizarre. Co-branded card really should be the best way to pay for transaction with the company.

As a consumer, it pays to figure out the most common angles for high value redemptions for the travel you want to enjoy.

3. Getting a feel for historical signup bonuses is important (so you know when to pounce!)


If you sign up for a credit card for a 40k bonus and the next day you see an offer for the card for 100k you'd be mad you only got 40k. Some credit card companies will retroactively give you the heightened signup bonus within a reasonable timeframe (Chase) but many (like American Express) do not. So it's important to catch a signup bonus at a historical high.

Furthermore, some credit card companies will only give you a signup bonus for a given credit card once per person lifetime. Credit card companies frequently create new "products" (and sometimes a Visa or Mastercard variation of a card constitutes a new product) but still - there are only so many cards out there so when you do sign up for a card you'll want to make sure you caught it at a high point.

I don't know of a good resource out there that tracks these things over time. I think a site that charted standard and targeted signup bonuses of the most popular cards would be tremendously useful. But I bet credit card companies disallow that in their affiliate terms so the most likely people to do this can't without losing their lucrative affiliate relationships with banks.

One way I've tried figuring out if a given credit card has ever been offered with a higher signup bonus than what's currently available is to perform Google searches for logical increments above what's now available. Say for example the Chase Sapphre Preferred (great card) is available with a 40k signup bonus. I'd do a Google search for "chase sapphire 50k" or "chase sapphire 100,000" (dare to dream!). Often these searches will turn up now expired offers. But if they weren't too long ago I'd get the feeling the heightened bonus might come back.

For now, the best way to get a feel for historical signup bonuses and stay informed of heightened bonuses is to follow the Boarding Area blogs (and a few of your other favorites) and read FlyerTalk. Especially this thread. It would be hard for something to sneak past if you follow those two.

4. Get to know the easiest, most reliable ways to manufacture spend


"Manufacturing" spend is buying things on your credit card that can easily be converted to cash. One of the greatest manufactured spend schemes of all time was when the US Mint sold dollar coins with free shipping and allowed them to be purchased fee-free with credit cards. You could buy them and deposit them at your local bank again and again, racking up as many miles as your credit limit, back, and patience would allow.

Manufactured spend is most useful when applied towards meeting minimum spending requirements on new credit cards without spending more than you otherwise would. For big spenders or those with high levels of reimbursed spending they can put on their personal credit card manufacturing spend isn't needed. But credit card issuers have been increasing the minimum spending requirements of their most lucrative cards. For situations like this, manufacturing spend can be handy.

There's an entire FlyerTalk forum devoted to Manufactured Spend. Vanilla Reloads purchased at CVS and liquidated through Bluebird is a current favorite. Amazon Payments is probably right behind that. And there are many many more ways to manufacture spend for those interested in making this an ongoing hobby.

Learning how to manufacture spend isn't necessary. But it sure beats spending more than you otherwise would to rack up points & miles.

5. You never know how plans might change (so diversity and flexibility is key)


When I first started collecting points & miles it was with the intention of getting the family from Boston to Munich for European Delivery. You can save quite a bit on a new car this way but if you spend $6k to fly 4 people the savings goes out the window. Since I wanted to use points & miles to get us there I started to focus on racking up United miles so I could fly on their Star Alliance partner airline Lufthansa. I'd need 60k x 4 miles (240k) to get there.

But while working on earning those miles I noticed a lot of other heightened credit card signup bonuses. I went for them, and things have turned out great for the most part. Especially ones with flexible redemption options like Chase Ultimate Rewards, AmEx Membership Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest (which can be transfered 20k to 25k airline miles through a ton of partners).

Worst case, Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards can be converted to cashback or gift cards worth around $0.01 a point. But the highest leverage redemptions come from transferring flexible points to airline partners for premium cabins awards. So these programs provide the best of both worlds: A floor value of a penny a point and upside beyond that if you can find a great reward redemption.

It may be possible to spread things around too much if you have just a few points & miles in a bunch of different programs. But as long as you have enough critical mass to get a reward ticket I don't see any harm in diversifying. The majority of the trips we've taken the past two years weren't on my radar screen two years ago. Especially since points & miles have enabled trips I wouldn't have otherwise been able to justify in my mind.

6. Award charts can change at any time, and they represent a best case scenario


In the past couple years almost every airline and hotel program has devalued their loyalty program in some way. People hem and haw about it when this happens, suggesting the airlines need to make it easier to earn points if they're going to increase award costs. I'm thinking to myself: I can get signup bonuses for a Chase United card, a Chase Sapphire Preferred, a Chase Freedom, a Chase United business card, and multiple Chase Ink business cards that all transfer to United - and someone wants United to make it easier to earn miles? You can fly your entire family to Europe or Asia on credit card signup bonuses alone and consumers are arguing for more? I don't get it but I understand it: When a loyalty program changes beneath you while you're working towards a reward it stinks.

Yes, United devalued their premium cabin redemptions on partner airlines. But they're still a good value. High quality partners, above average award availability, and tons of ways to earn miles without stepping on a plane. We're still in a golden age for credit card signup bonuses.

But finding award availability can be challenging. And this is the part that can still drives me bonkers. I feel like if I rack up enough points & miles for a certain reward and I've got a reasonable amount of foresight and flexibility I should be able to get the reward. For example, if I'm willing to rack up 300k AA or UA miles to fly from Boston to Hawaii in Business/First class some time during my kids' school break (plus or minus a few days) a year ahead of time I should be able to find that award. And sometimes, even looking very far out and having date flexibility certain awards aren't available.

Some airlines are better than others. This chart does a fair job of comparing award availability at saver levels on various carriers. For the most part - I think they get it right. Keep this in mind when considering which miles to collect.

7. Your points balance may outpace your available vacation (if so, go for the premium cabin redemptions)


One of my favorite things about points & miles is how it enables travelling in Business or First Class. For some reason, most airlines charge a lot more for Business/First when paying with money. When paying with miles premium cabins aren't nearly as much of a premium. And award availability is often better in Business/First which makes justifying the splurge easier. This is a rather irrational thing to "like" about points & miles - I admit it - but who doesn't want premium service at a deep discount?

Now, some might say Business/First isn't worth it. That they'd rather have two vacations instead of one. I see their point. But since time off work and school is limited for us, and I figure I'd rather burn miles I have now than hoard them while they devalue beneath me I figure I might as well earn 'em and burn 'em. I can always earn more miles later. Or if this gravy train stops I can pay cash or take different vacations that don't involve long distance flights.

8. Strategies when feeding a family


It's hard to rack up enough points & miles to fly a family on multiple vacations each year, especially when travelling at peak school vacation times.

The good news is each adult can separately apply for the same credit cards and both can receive the bonuses. Even if someone is an authorized user on a given credit card they can apply for the card on their own and qualify for the bonus. So any sign-up bonus discovered can be taken advantage of twice as many times as it otherwise would which makes times spent reading about this stuff more efficient.

Typically, one person is more interested in playing this game than the other. In cases like this I find it convenient to sign up the less interested partner for cards with lower spending requirements and fewer cards in general. And I'll limit the number of cards my less interested partner has at any given time to 2. For example: "Use this for gas and groceries, and the other for everything else." Then swap them out when new cards come in.

I'll add myself as an authorized user to help meet high minimum spends, but a word of caution before you add yourself as an authorized user on all of your spouse's cards: The balance on the card will show up on your credit report so when you're ramping balances to meet minimum spend it could negatively impact your credit score at an inopportune time! To avoid this problem, only add yourself as an authorized user when absolutely necessary and pay the card off a few days before the statement closes.

9. Set dollar and time thresholds


A long time ago I created a "$20 rule". I wouldn't stress myself out about any transactions that were less than $20. For example, if I bought something at an out of the way store and was overcharged $5 for the item, I wouldn't invest a lot of time or effort to rectify the situation. If I could just submit a claim online or send an email - fine - but I wouldn't get in a car and make a special trip for something unless it was worth more than $20. It just isn't worth the time.

As it comes to chasing points & miles I think about things like this at well. It's super easy to stop at a CVS as part of my normal activities and takes less than 5 minutes to grab a few Vanilla Reloads a few times a month. So I gladly do it. But schemes involving trips to Wal-Mart and the Post Office and interacting with people who look at you like you're doing something shady are non-starters for me. I just won't go there.

My point is that you should set a dollar threshold beneath which you won't sweat a transaction that's gone awry. Or perform a point-earning activity that takes too much time relative to what it pays. Milenomics has done a great job expanding on this and more.

10. Consider: Where would you go if travel was nearly free?


One of my favorite things about playing the points & miles game is it gives me a chance to constantly be planning (and dreaming about) awesome family vacations. Once you take away the financial restrictions associated with paying for air travel and hotels it enables a whole new level of vacationing.

But it's kind of like saying you wish you could write the next great novel if only you had the time. The thing that's hard about writing a great novel isn't time off work: It's really hard to write a great novel. Similarly with travel - I found I was planning many of our vacations assuming airfare cost a certain fixed amount. Once that gets paid for, and I can viably consider literally the entire world it opens up some incredible possibilities. Now I'm more concerned with flights being too long (rather than costing too much) or subjecting the family to a locale that's too foreign or exotic as to induce travel anxiety.

But if you (and your family) can reasonably travel to anywhere you want in the world at deep discount, where would you go? It's a really fun question to consider.

And for now, credit card companies are willing to pay to fly the world in premium cabins if we're willing to sign up for their cards and meet the minimum spends. It's probably not going to last forever but for now I'm enjoying the ride.

Continue reading: "Lessons learned while (trying to) redeem 1,000,000 points & miles".

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Questions or comments? Drop me an email or ping me on Twitter: @RobertDwyer

(Image courtesy of millbill.com)

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