The Magnificent Maldives- Reserving a Room (For Free!)

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ve made so much fuss over the last year about the Maldives, and previously when I wrote about going, I detailed how I would spend points for nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives. Well, like I told you before, I ended up trading in those nights for a 4 day stay at the Conrad, simply because it was easier (and I wanted to go to their underwater restaurant.)

So how did I do it?

Well, the Conrad Maldives is the absolute highest category hotel that they’ve got, clocking in at an astonishing 95,000 points/ night. For reference, their cheapest hotels (Category 1) go for a mere 10,000 points/ night.

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I spent all year saving up for this, using sign up bonuses from the Hilton Honors Ascend card (which offers 100k points after 3k spend in 6 months) and the now defunct Citi Hilton Reserve card, which offered two free weekend nights at any hotel after 3k spend in the first three months.

I also saved up all the points I’d ever earned from doing my Diamond status challenge and made sure most of my stays during the last year were at Hiltons. This wasn’t just to earn points (though the earning ratio is vastly improved when you have status), but also because being a Diamond member means I get better perks here than at any other chain.

If you’re looking to acquire Hilton points, you can get the card I mentioned above as well as the Hilton Honors Aspire card, which earns you 100k points after 4k in spend in the first three months. (It also gives you Diamond status simply by owning it). There’s also the no annual fee Hilton Honors card, which gives you 50k bonus points after 1k in spend in the first three months.

Obtaining these three cards will net you a minimum of 250,000 points before spend (which will easily drive it up another 10-15k)- nearly enough for three nights at the Conrad Maldives. If you can get yourself up to 380,000 points (very doable in a year, as the Hilton cards earn rewards very quickly), you’ll have enough points for 4 nights. The Hilton Honors program gives the 5th night free on all hotel stays, so you’ll be able to stay for 5 nights for the cost of 4!

So, yes, it’s expensive. But you’re also redeeming your points at a hotel that regularly goes for over $2,000 a night, so you’re making it well worth your while.

The reward room you get is the beach villa, which is nice enough on its own. But a mere month before my arrival, Hilton accidentally made overwater villas (normally a $150-$300/ night upgrade) available for redemption for only 95,000 points a night- the same rate as a beach villa!

Unfortunately, I was past my cancellation window, so thought I had lost the opportunity to snag this. However, I still gave the Diamond desk a call and to my extreme surprise, they pulled some strings, replacing my 4 night stay in a beach villa with 4 nights in an overwater villa at no extra cost! I was more than a little pleased, and have continuously gloated since.

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For us!

Anyway, if you’re looking to stay, those three cards are the easiest way to earn large quantities of points, and once you’ve accumulated enough, it’s worth your while to aim for 4 nights and get 5. If you’re averse to too many cards, American Express transfers points to Hilton at a 2:1 ratio, so you’ll need a mere 190,000 American Express points for your 5 nights at the Maldives.

Up next, more fun and less points. See you soon!

– Carissa “Smug AF” Rawson

Miraculous Miraval: Terrifying Ziplining

Hello Dear Readers!

I promise I haven’t died- I’ve just been really busy. (As per the usual).

So, where did we leave off? I’m pretty sure I had just told you guys all about traveling to the Miraval Resort with my sister, Jill. Like I said, redeeming the points was a no-brainer, and we had an absolutely awesome time.

In addition to all sorts of wellness classes, (like yoga, meditation, and spiritual healing), the resort also had challenge courses. Of course Jill and I signed up to go ziplining.

Now, I’ve ziplined once before. I was on a cruise and one of the shore excursions in Dominica was this crazy rope walk through the trees with ziplining. The issue there was that, well, it was Dominica, which meant there were zero safety codes. Which is how I found myself zooming towards a tree on a duct-taped cable with no brakes and a mattress at the other end.

Suffice to say that my first time was a little scary. However, since this was in the good old US of A, I had high hopes as to the safety standards of our course.

And yes, it was safe, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying. 

Like I said, this was considered a ‘challenge course,’ which meant apparently that in order to get to the zipline, you had to scale a fifty foot telephone pole.

Like, with your hands. And your feet. There was no nifty basket to haul my carcass up there.

Someone help us

I’m not that bad with heights, really, but the last time I tried crawling up a sheer surface with my bare hands I got so scared that I straight fell off.

Jill, also, has a horrific time with this concept.

So it was with no little amount of trepidation that we watched the first couple people scale this pole, looking like monkeys as they hopped from rung to rung. I told Jill I’d go first, so I wouldn’t have time to psyche myself out, and began climbing as soon as I was told.

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Pictured: not that bad

It wasn’t so bad, at first. Really. But right at about twenty feet, I realized the ground was really far away, and the rungs were super tiny, and also ohmygod what am I doing.

Ohgod ohgod ohgod

I didn’t fall, at least, but I panicked and raced the entire rest of the way up to the platform, arriving and nearly collapsing with relief.

Just kidding. I was hanging onto the pole for dear life. The employee eventually had to pry me off, assuring me that I was securely connected to the cables hanging around the platform.

Then it was Jill’s turn.

You guys.

You guys. 

It started simply enough. Here comes Jill, crawling up this pole, with all the rest of us shouting encouragement and urging her to come up. I stood at the top and berated her, as any good older sister does.

And there she was, a mere two rungs from arriving at the platform. Her head was even peeking over- all she needed to do was grab this rung.

It was at this point that she looked down. And oh, the panic was real.

It was like a movie. She hung there, hyperventilating, convincing herself she couldn’t do it.

There we all were, calling, calling, encouraging her to reach, just one more, and there she went- one arm outstretched- grasping for the rung.

She caught it with the tips of her fingers, and in slow-motion they slipped, her petrified face dropping out of view as she fell.

The air stopped moving but for her terrified yelp as- thwack- with a stretch, her rope caught her and she swung back around to the pole, clinging to the rungs and sobbing.

She was back several feet down and as red as a tomato, (she’s a ginger, you know), trying to gain control of herself and overcome her panic.

And she did. Scarcely a minute later, she began climbing again, this time her face filled with resolve as rose up.

Finally, she crawled up over the platform, and we all cheered wildly, congratulating her on making it.

After that, the zipline was cake.

-Carissa “Badass” Rawson

¡Hola Mexico! An All-Inclusive Experience: Part 2

Hello Dear Readers!

Today is the day for the rest of the photos. Are you guys ready?

Our incredible spa deserves its own little photo set:

These people were so good that we went back twice over our four day stay. You can see me in the photo above drinking hibiscus tea and trying to look inconspicuous.

These photos don’t do the food justice. Believe me when I say it was phenomenal. I mean, come on, filet mignon! 

We also took photos every night in this blue-lit pavilion, in which Chrissy looked like a regal goddess and I looked like I accidentally walked into the photo.

Overall, we had an amazing time, and let’s be real, we’re already planning to go back.

Until next time!

-Carissa “Less Guapa” Ragland

¡Hola Mexico! An All-Inclusive Experience: Part 1

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m writing this to you on a plane, as most of my recent posts have been. By the time you’ll read this, I’ll be in an entirely different country, but as of now, I’ve just returned from Playa Del Carmen and my first ever trip to Mexico.

That entire last phrase is italicized because I’m actually from southern California, and yet had never driven the hour or so south to go visit our neighbors. This, despite the fact that I make a habit of flying around the world.

Anyway- I went down to Mexico for the very first time! And when I say “Mexico,” I mean “I drove straight to an all-inclusive resort and stayed there for the entirety of my trip.” I wouldn’t say I got the ”cultural experience,’ but I did have an amazing time.

Even better, this time I wasn’t alone! One of my best friends, Chrissy, came to meet me, and we had a blast catching up on girl gossip (boys!) and general life experiences.

I’ve got to say, I really needed a vacation. *cue world’s smallest violin.* Spending this time at this resort was probably one of the best trips I’ve ever had. All-inclusive resorts are all about excess, and boy did we exceed. Pristine sand, 80 minute massages, and unlimited ice cream were all part of our incredible vacation experience.

Now, the hotel was called the Barcelo Maya Palace, and it was one of about five in a sprawling complex that encompassed huge swaths of Playa Del Carmen’s beaches. Sorry, let me amend that, it was the best of about five of these resorts, which meant that our daily dinners consisted of things like filet mignon and creme’ brûlée, and we had tons of fun dressing up.

I’ve got a lot of photos, so I’ll split them between posts. Here are the first few:

Don’t we look good playing dress up?

-Carissa “Not even a little more tan” Ragland

Dipping in a Toe: The First Steps for Starting Reward Travel

Hey there everyone,
How are you guys liking the new format? I figured since I finally had enough content, it was time for a refresh on the website. I think the new look is pretty cool, and helps to highlight a lot of the awesome pictures that we have. (Not that I’m biased). Anyway, today I’d like to talk to you guys about the actual steps, in order, that you should take if you’re looking to start into the rewards travel game. Credit for this idea goes to my aunt, whom I am attempting to corrupt at this very moment. (Hi Angie!) Anyway, I realize that a lot of these posts probably come off as complicated for someone just looking to start in the game. Hence, this post.

a2a54309-e28c-421e-beb5-df594fcbea62The first question you always want to answer when looking to start points hacking is what do I want to do with these points? I know that may sound simple, but there are so many different options available to you that knowing what you want to do first gives you a really good direction from which to start.

I, for example, wanted to fly to Europe for free. I had read a few blogs stating that the British Airways signup bonus (50,000 British Airways Avios) was enough to get you to Europe and back, twice, if you flew from Boston. So that’s where I started. In August of 2015 (believe it or not) I got my first card, and from there everything has built upwards.

But what if you wanted to do something else? What if you wanted to go to Hawaii? Or take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas? Each option requires different rewards, and figuring out all the information can be tough.

First things first, though. You can’t get into the reward travel game with bad credit. Banks are giving out these offers in the hopes that you’ll continue to be a loyal customer, and they aren’t willing to risk this kind of money on people who don’t have good credit. So:

  1. Check your credit. There are numerous websites that will offer you a free credit score, even as often as 1x a week. I personally use Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, Credit Journey, and Nerd Wallet to check my different scores. Credit Karma will offer you both your Experian and Transunion score, which banks pull most frequently from, so I’d go with them first.
  2. Look up credit card specials. The Points Guy has a top 10 list of credit card offers that they maintain, along with different and excellent ways to maximize your points. If you’re worried that your score isn’t good enough, nerdwallet.com will tell you your approval odds for each card.
  3. Decide where you want to go. Bali? Argentina? Hawaii?
  4. Get your first card. For people whose scores hover in the 700’s-720’s, or for someone who doesn’t have much credit built up (not many loans, past credit cards, etc) I would recommend going with mid-level credit cards rather than top-tier right away. Let the banks build their trust in you. Some of these cards include:
  • Chase Sapphire Preferred– the little brother of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, this card still offers 50,000 points to sign up and a minimal fee of $95/year (waived the first year)
  • Hilton Honors American Express, either the Surpass, which is $95/year, or its little brother, the no fee version. The no fee card currently has an increased signup bonus of 75,000 Honors points.
  • AAdvantage Aviator Red card, which is $95/year and offers 40,000 points after your first purchase.

5. Follow different blogging sites, which will tell you awesome deals as they occur and keep you up to date on specials. Often, it can be worth your while to purchase airfare on sale and save your points for lodging. I follow View From the Wing, Secret Flying, Travel Pirates, The Points GuyDeals We Like, Running With Miles, Flyer Talk, Award Wallet, and many more. For the most part, I keep up to date on Facebook, which is a constant feed of the best specials out there.

6. Google is your friend. Want to know the best way to spend 100,000 American Express points? Google will give you a hundred top ten lists, and you can peruse at your leisure.

7. Read my blog! I know, I know, shameless plug, but I’m going to start highlighting different ways to spend points for vacations, because I realize that just deciding where to go and how to do it can be a little…overwhelming.

Was this even helpful? It seems like a primer guide is a little difficult to write. Anyway, the most important takeaways are these: know your credit score. Know it like the back of your hand. Have an idea in mind and apply with purpose- don’t start off just hoarding points. If United miles get you there faster, get a United card. If Southwest does the trick, get Southwest. Never carry a balance. It will tank your score and leave you unable to peruse further points accumulation. And finally, remember to have fun! These are points with a purpose, and using them correctly can give you amazing, unbelievable adventures that you would have never thought possible.

-Carissa.

P.S. I’ll be back later with vacation ideas because who doesn’t like to dream?

The Dominican Republic: Virgin Mudslides and Montezuma’s Revenge: Part 2

Where did I leave off yesterday? Oh that’s right, we had just gotten to our hotel in the Dominican Republic. First off, have any of you guys ever been to the Caribbean? I went down through several different islands (St. Thomas, St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Barbados, Dominica) on a cruise a few years back, and while I always thought the resort areas were nice, beyond their borders the poverty levels were shocking. I guess white sand beaches are only important if you can, y’know, feed your family.

Anyway, this time around I was totally sure that it would be 100% different and everything would be nice and beautiful because…optimism. I think you guys can see where this is going. Turns out the Dominican Republic is just as poor as everyone else! But that’s ok, because we drove straight through it without stopping on the way to our lovely all-inclusive resort.

Enough about the plight of others. What, do you think this is a blog about humanity? Nope! Our resort, which was called “Lifestyle Tropical Resort,” was a huge, sprawling mass that encompassed 10 other, smaller resorts. I guess the Lifestyle brand is worldwide, which was fairly obvious considering most of the guests there were from the far reaches of the world: Australia, Ecuador, Canada, etc etc.

The resort gave us each a wrist band, which seemed really cool to begin with, since they were marked with a large VIP and clearly meant we were something special. Then, a friendly Dominican guide showed us to our room, which was decent, something I’d expect from a 3 star hotel in the Dominican Republic.

However, we soon came to find out that these wristbands were not quite as special as we had thought, and that actually being marked VIP denoted us as the lowest tier of guests on property. What did this mean?

NO ACCESS TO THE ICE CREAM SHOP. WE WERE REBUFFED FROM THE CREPE STAND. AND- WORST OF ALL- WE WEREN’T ALLOWED INTO THE SPECIALTY WHISKEY BAR. David returned to our room, crying.

Seriously, though. While being at an all-inclusive resort was nice, having different levels of access certainly made us feel…less than. Guests would be hanging out with each other, making small talk, while trying to glance surreptitiously at each other’s wrists to see what level of membership each person had. (The people who owned timeshares within the resort were obviously the highest tier) It was like a caste system at an all-inclusive resort, and we were at the bottom.

I know, these problems are so first world.

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David suffering his life away

So what’s the point of being at an all-inclusive resort? Obviously, to eat and drink as much as humanly possible. You guys will then be disappointed to know that I was on antibiotics and thus prevented from drinking alcohol. David, however, suffered from no such compunction and managed to drink enough for the both of us. The resort is littered with bars and filled with generous bartenders who, I kid you not, straight dump liquor into your glass while winking knowingly at you.

So it was with great confusion that David ordered a “virgin mudslide.” The conversation went something like this:

“Hi, I’d like a superextrastrongalcoholic drink and one virgin mudslide.”
*pause for a beat*
Server: “a what?”
David: “yeah, a virgin mudslide.”
Server: “…you mean a chocolate frosty?”
David: *shamefully* “…yeah.”

That’s how you know a man loves you. Let me tell you, I slurped those things down like there was no tomorrow. They were delicious!

We didn’t do much during our time there, so there isn’t much to write about. However, we did get to try some awesome food at dinner time, and we spend a significant amount of time in the cabanas at the beach. Those were awesome.

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So tilt. So art. So cabana.

But did you guys know that November is the rainy season in the DR? Us either, which meant that 3/4 days we were there, it poured off and on all day. That meant the cabanas were frequently soggy (no one else minded because they were all plastered).

And! One day we got stuck in a rainstorm on the way to dinner at the *authentic* Dominican food restaurant. The whole resort was flooded, and remember how I said it was totally sprawled out? Well, you have to use their resort shuttle system to get around, but the water was too high to get through. I mean, the cars in the parking lot were under almost 3 feet of water. We did manage to flag down a delivery van, and crawled into the open back (no seats, just a metal floor) despite the driver’s protests. Then about 8 other people saw what we were doing and climbed in too, including a very drunk, very old woman who didn’t realize I wasn’t her granddaughter until 20 minutes in. I’ve never been held so lovingly by a 90 year I didn’t know.

Ok, one last story from the resort and I’ll finish up with this part, because seriously guys WHAT THE HELL. Have you guys ever heard of a huntsman spider? I hadn’t either. Here’s a photo of it:

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Shortly before this man died a tragic, spidery, death

Well, on our last night at the resort, we were eating at an open air Mexican restaurant (the food throughout the resort was actually really good), when all of a sudden, the couple at the table next to us stood up, freaking out. We were waiting on our dessert to be served, and I turned to ask the girl what was going on.

“There’s a spider!” she shrieked, pointing wildly in the direction of her table. Now, I would just like to pause here and note that I am not afraid of spiders. David is, and I have to crush them all around the house because he flails like a big baby at them.

But then I saw this spider. It was finished with their table, and instead ran over to ours, skittering across the tabletop like a huge, hairy omen of death.

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THIS WAS BASICALLY US

It was at this point that I got on my chair and started shouting. David, frozen with fear, gaped at the spider and refused to move. A waitress came rushing over, and when I hysterically described the spider to her, she shook the tablecloth a few times before declaring that the spider was gone.

Besides, she said, “it’s harmless, like a big kitty. ”

She then brought me a jack and coke, to calm my nerves.
Thanks, Dominican Republic.
-Carissa who is miraculously still alive

The Dominican Republic: Virgin Mudslides and Montezuma’s Revenge: Part 1

Time for another trip review! Today we’re going to talk about our jaunt over to the Dominican Republic, what went wrong, what went right, and how to do it better next time.

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The idea for the trip started like many of my others. There I was, innocently scrolling through my Facebook feed, looking for videos of baby kittens when- what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a travel pirates post with the deal of the year!

So of course I had to get it. What was it, you ask? Oh, no big deal, just a four night stay at an all-inclusive resort for $88. No, not per person. Just $88. Who wouldn’t buy that?

David always knows when I’m booking travel because I’ll always call him up all innocently, like:

“Hey David, what’s your passport number?”
“Why?”
“Oh, you know, just…wondering.”

For some reason he doesn’t believe me. Anyway, I booked the hotel and then set about looking for ways to get to down to the Dominican Republic for free. I mean, I didn’t want to spoil my $88 vacation rate by purchasing airfare.

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It turns out that flights down to the Dominican Republic cost an arm and a leg, but luckily, I had some reward redemption tricks up my sleeve to keep costs low (free).

Since the vacation started right after Thanksgiving, David and I were going to be up in D.C., so rather than flying all the way back to Augusta, we stopped off in Atlanta for the night before hopping rewards flights down to Miami and then across to the DR.

Atlanta happens to be one of those cities where even the expensive things are cheap in comparison to the rest of the country. This is evidenced by the fact that staying in even the nicest hotels, such as the Ritz-Carlton, will only set you back $150/night.

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Photo of the year award right here

Now, another perk that the American Express Business Platinum (and regular platinum) have is something called the ‘Fine Hotels and Resorts’ program, where you book through Amex’s travel portal and receive extra goodies, such as 12pm check in, 4pm check out, room upgrades, free breakfast and a $100 credit for food and beverage (or a spa, if your hotel has one.) The Ritz-Carlton Atlanta qualifies for this program, so I went ahead and booked through American Express’ portal in order to get those awesome benefits. Since our flight was super early the next morning, I opted to have room service delivered to the room for our breakfast. The free breakfast credit covered up to $60 worth of food.

Those savvy readers here will see that, very quickly, my $150/night hotel was actually costing me negative money to stay. I got the room upgrade, checked in at 10am, and spent a wonderful evening with David eating steak at their super fancy restaurant. All told, it cost me -$10 plus whatever you value all the upgrades and stuff at. (Since they gave me $160 worth of free food and drinks). Not a bad start to the week!

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Our 5am spread

I then spent 15k Delta miles each for David and I to fly round-trip to Miami. After taxes, our flight cost was $22. (We used miles earned from the American Express Delta Platinum card, whose sign up bonus is currently 50,000 miles). When looking to book those flights at cash value, the cost was around $500/person.

We rose early the next morning, caught our flight, and landed in Miami with several hours to spare. We used those extra hours to head to the American Express Centurion Lounge (more on that later) for free food, drinks, and massages. After that, we boarded our flights to Puerto Plata, using reward redemptions from British Airways (earned using Chase’s British Airways Visa card, whose sign up bonus is currently 50,000 points). In total, it cost us 15k points each and $200 for taxes and fees. The cash value of these flights was around $700/person.

So! After an early flight and many hours in the airport, we finally arrived to our hotel. It seemed fairly nice from the offset, not super extravagant, but I figured for $88 there wasn’t anything that could be too awful.

Foreshadowing.

-Carissa the Ridiculously Tanned in Winter