Booking our First Family Vacation with Chase Rewards

We’re just dipping our toe into the travel optimizing pond here and I was a bit nervous. It required opening AND using a credit card, so if that makes you nervous, don’t do it. We had to be disciplined and used the card for most purchases and a few large purchases, like summer camp, to maximize points earnings.

Here’s what we did, as well as a few mistakes we learned from:

  • We both opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and spent the required $4,000 (each) easily within three months to earn 50,000 bonus points (each). Lesson learned: We forgot to have my husband use my referral code when he applied, missing out on 10,000 bonus points.
sailing on the delaware
Sailing on the Delaware River, pining for the Bahamas
  • We set a goal: get enough points to get our family of four to the Bahamas or any Caribbean island over the week of Thanksgiving. Of the Chase rewards travel partners, Southwest was clearly the best option with the lowest amount of points required: I estimated 140k – 150k points for our family, however November travel dates were not released when we were planning.
  • Searched for the best deal: Southwest didn’t release their winter travel dates until May 31, so we knew we had to earn the required points by then. When the flights were available, we had 133,775 total points earned. I used Southwest’s low fare calendar to find the best combination of dates that would give us a 5- to 7-day Thanksgiving vacation with our points, but I kept coming up short.
  • Transferred points from Chase to Southwest: you can’t book Southwest through the Chase portal, so a points transfer is required. This was pretty easy. I transferred 73,000 Chase Rewards points to my Rapid Rewards account and it appeared immediately. I then transferred 60,000 of my husband’s Chase Rewards points to my Rapid Rewards account and when it didn’t appear immediately, I had a minor freak out. When transferring from Chase, you have to enter the cardholders name on the Chase site, plus a Rapid Rewards number. I used my husband’s name with my Rapid Rewards number and when the points didn’t appear, I assumed that using his name with my Rapid Rewards number was a big mistake. The Chase customer service was absolutely great and while we were talking through how to course-correct, the points appeared! I just needed a little patience.
  • Purchased additional Rapid Rewards: Since we didn’t have enough, I purchased 7,000 rapid rewards points for $134 to give me the points required to book our trip.
  • Booked it! It was a rather smooth process despite my human errors. Here’s the breakdown:
    • Earned Rewards: 133,775
    • Purchased Rewards: 7,000 ($134)
    • Total Redeemed Rewards: 139,776
    • Taxes and Fees: $463
    • Total: $597 = $149.25 each!
  • Versus Actual Costs: Flights: $3416.16 +  Taxes/Fees: $664.16 = $1,020.08 each. We saved $870 each – that’s $3,480! There’s no way we would have or could have spent that. And these prices are already higher than they were when I booked just five days ago.

Another thing I learned from the Marla Tanner interview on ChooseFI is that you can, in fact, redeem British Airways miles through Chase. I tried to figure this out online and couldn’t, so thank you Marla for teaching me that you actually have to call the airline. I will keep that in mind, but I think we’ll stick with Southwest for now because our next travel goal is a rocky mountain ski vacation.

A huge thank you to ChooseFI for teaching us how to travel for less!

How We Saved up to 50% on our Energy Bill

I thought we were in cruise control, fully optimized with our recurring, monthly bills. Until I got an email from our energy supplier.

We’re in Philly with PECO as our energy utility/distributor. About a year ago, just pre-FI for us, I made the switch to a renewable energy supplier, sourcing all wind-powered energy. I can’t remember the intro rate, but it was a good rate – cheaper than the traditional energy providers, and I strongly believe in supporting renewable energy.  Plus, they had an incentive of an annual rebate of 3% of your annual charges back in an account credit. If I did my math right, that’s about a $60 credit we’ll get. This rebate email is what prompted my energy bill digging. The email didn’t state the amount of credit was I getting, just that it was there to claim. There was no amount or timeframe. This lack of info was annoying. So, I dug in:

  1. Our bill has been steadily rising. They don’t provide the KWH rate for each billing period (ugh), but I see we’re paying a bit more and not always when we’re using more energy.
  2. I’m pretty sure that whatever intro rate I had has since gone up; I’m going to take my 3% credit and make a switch to a lower cost supplier that is also renewable. You can do this in PA!
  3. Our energy use is rising.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has a program called PA Power Switch which allows electric utility customers to choose from a wide selection of energy providers. They vary by proximity, variable versus fixed price, term length, contract fees, and percent that’s renewable energy. This sounds confusing, but it’s not. It’s a very user-friendly search tool and even I understand it.

Here’s where I’ve landed:

  • Our Current with a Renewable Supplier: 0.1429 per kWh
  • Cheapest Traditional Energy Option: 0.0585 per kWh
  • Cheapest Renewable Energy Option: 0.0725 per kWh with 24 month term

Because of my love for this planet, I’m going to support the renewable energy option that offers a kWh rate of 50% lower than my current. (I don’t mind the 24-month term.)

PECO Billing
Our annual energy costs + daily average temps courtesy of PECO

And the PECO site also offers great energy usage analysis and some easy energy savings tips. We’re are doing the following immediately:

  • Cold water laundry – my boys stink, I feel hot water is necessary, but I’ll switch to cold and see
  • Unplug electronics
  • Turn off power strips – why do we leave WiFi and the other office components on all day when we’re not home?!
  • Adjust TV brightness – apparently the factory default is a “showroom” setting. We have it on 0-2 hours per day, so not sure this will have much of an impact.
  • Tell everyone to turn off the lights when they leave the room!

So, we’re lowering our usage and lowering our rate. It will be very interesting to see how much we actually save per bill. Full transparency: Our last bill was $175 with an average daily use of 25.8 kWh. I will update in a month!

Using Travel Rewards from Philadelphia

Chase Rewards offer the best value in a travel points program. Except if you’re flying out of Philly. American Airlines owns PHL and American is not a Chase Rewards partner. I thought I could triangulate with the Star Alliance partnership: British Air is is a Chase partner and British Air and American Airlines are both Star Alliance partners, but I could not see how I could transfer Chase Rewards to British Air to American Air. As far as I can tell, you can’t.

Other Chase partners, like Delta and Southwest, fly out of Philly, but everywhere we want to go (anywhere in the Caribbean) has a connection.

Accepting that I had to give up on the non-stop to the Caribbean dream, I’m going for value. We’ve had our cards since January 2018 and we’ve earned about 130,000 Chase Rewards. That includes the 50k bonuses. With 130,000, there’s only one airline with which we can redeem rewards for four airline tickets: Southwest. Now, Southwest has had a few terrible incidents recently, which makes me nervous. But perhaps because of these incidents, now may be the best (i.e., safest) time to fly with Southwest. We’re planning to take the kids to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving, but Southwest isn’t allowing booking this far out. I’m hoping the holiday booking fares don’t exceed the points we have.

Depending on this experience, we may open the Chase Southwest card in 2019 because it seems we can get more for our money/points with that airline and the annual companion ticket is a great deal, especially with a family of four. However, I may look at what card offers American Airlines has because Philly is an American hub.

This is all my fault. I just got so excited about Chase Rewards, that I didn’t thoroughly research the airline partners. Let this be a lesson learned! It’s not a bad mistake, just some inconvenience with dreaded connections; worth the free tickets we’ve earned.

phl from plane Philly from the Air

Connecting Financial Independence with Environmentalism

Yesterday was Earth Day. Every day is Earth Day.

A part of the path to FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) involves consuming less and this really resonates with me. It’s not being frugal to save money, but it’s being frugal to really think about what you need versus want while considering the true value of each purchase. I haven’t been too great at this lately, but all big purchases get scrutinized for their value.

I’ve written about the every day things we do without – cable, subscriptions, expensive cell phone bills, eating out, etc. – and the big ticket items we’re doing without – kitchen remodel and pretty much any large home remodel that applies to this old house. Obviously none of these things are necessary, so these aren’t tough decisions. We have debt and spending money on anything else seems foolish.

And I can be foolish. This laptop I’m using is physically breaking down with missing parts, dents and dings, and running very slow at times. Couple that with a very persistent, soon to be birthday boy asking for a gaming laptop. And we’re getting one. What’s the value in that? Our family laptop will die and now we have one that the kids won’t complain about. There’s a lot of value in that.

But, I digress. Back to the planet.

nc sunset.jpg

 

Listening to NPR’s Living Green segment yesterday got me thinking there’s more we, as a family, can do. Computers aside, I think we’re pretty good with our environmentally-friendly and frugal and then, sometimes we’re not.

  • Paper products: We use cotton napkins, but we always have a roll of paper towels. Keeping cotton napkins, cloths and rags handy will help reduce that waste.
  • Compost: We don’t. We did in Seattle but in our Philly ‘burb, it’s available, but cost prohibitive. We have room in our yard to do something about this. I’ve composted yard waste, but I’d like to get a vessel so we can compost food waste, too.
  • Food: I’ve been trying to cut out meat during the week, but sometimes the convenience of cooking what we know wins. We can make a more concerted effort on this.
  • Water: We do wash a lot and we don’t have an efficient machine. We adjust the water levels, but it’ll be interesting to see if we save any water by running full loads only.
  • Clothes: I need to find a second hand store I like!
  • Stuff: We have too much! It drives me nuts. I need to purge and minimize. I feel like I’m always doing this, but I’m not making progress. I will start with one room at a time, working from the top (bedrooms) to bottom (basement).
  • Plastic: Stop buying the ziploc bags and use reusable containers and bees wax wraps.

I’m going to see if my library has All You Need is Less – this book was mentioned in the radio show.

I think the food and clothes will yield the biggest cost savings, but it’s not about the cost, it’s about the planet and, in turn, our health.

Saving money on an FI Family weekend trip to NYC

We haven’t been vacationing much lately. Almost two years ago, we moved our family of four  from Seattle back to our native Philly ‘burbs. In our ten years in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, every weekend was like a vacation because everything was new and exciting to us! The mountains, the sound, the Methow, Whistler, San Juans, Portland, Yellowstone, whale watching, etc. We were serious tourists for a full decade.

Back to the East, we’re still weekend warriors, with the benefit of having family (a free home away from home) on a lake in the Poconos, in beautiful coastal North Carolina and in the Finger Lakes … we’re really lucky to have family in great, vacation-worthy places.

But, we still like to take advantage of the culture, food and adventure of the east-coast cities. We’re only a 30-minute train ride from downtown Philly, so we get there often. But this past weekend, we took the kids to NYC, with a little FI-style.

FI Family in NYC by the Numbers:

  • Amtrak from Philly to New York’s Penn Station: $243 for four. This is actually what prompted this trip. I got a special offer email from Amtrak … and off we went. SAVINGS: $123
  • Hotel: FREE!  We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Times Square for $0. I redeemed 140,000 Hilton Honors points for 2 nights and it was the perfect location for tackling Manhattan in a weekend. SAVINGS: $652

There is so much to do in Manhattan, so free, some not. Let’s start with the free things we did:

Other free activities we didn’t do include the Staten Island Ferry, so many museums and art galleries, central park, and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

We chose to pay for one activity per day: an observation deck on a tall building and a museum. I discovered that my company offers a ton of discounts on shopping, travel, insurance, plays, activities, etc. So we took advantage of discounts on these two:

  • Top of the Rock: $110 for four. I thought that looking at the Empire State Building would be better than the view from it. We selected 6:40pm so we could watch the sunset, but the warm spring day took quite a turn and it was chilly and cold! The sunset was a bust, but the view was great and we stayed until the Empire State Building’s lights went on. SAVINGS: $55
  • The American Museum of Natural History: $51.50 for four. Looking at the forecast, we knew we’d want to spend our time on Sunday inside. This museum is huge and was so crowded, but we were still able to see a ton of exhibits without feeling like sardines. SAVINGS: $20.50 and we got out of there without buying anything from any of the many gift shops!

I would have loved to see a show with the kids, so I looked at tickets to the Blue Man Group, but with the charges and fees, it came to $500 for four. It was $350 with the company discounts, but we still chose to pass. It’s a lot to spend and there’s only so much time in the day.

We didn’t save any money eating, in fact I’m afraid to look at what the total damage was. We’re thankful for the food hall trend – we all eat what we want in one place:

  • The Food Court at the Plaza: The Doughnuttery only further fueled our son’s desire to open a donut shop.
  • Eataly: the Italian food market; we hit the one in the financial district and enjoyed a drink, pizza, charcuterie with wine followed by gelato and some serious market browsing with beer. There’s an incredible amount of prepared food to indulge in here and plenty to offer to make every weary traveler happy.

Finally, how we got around:

  • Walked 12.6 miles
  • Climbed 30 floors
  • Rode the subway six times
  • And took four cab rides

With what we spent on food, drinks, souvenirs, subways and cabs, this was by no means an FI vacation, but we saved $850.50 with the points and discounts we used. We can be frugal and always look for the best deal, but by no means do we deprive ourselves, especially on vacation.

We’re looking forward to coming back to NYC for a weekend in Brooklyn!