As you all know, I had just recently hopped a plane from Ethiopia back to Dubai, in order to meet my brother PJ for our six days in the UAE.
I wrote about coming here earlier this year, and explained how I used both the Citi Prestige 4th night free and a promotion from Starwood that gave me two more free nights in order to stay six nights for the price of three at the St. Regis Dubai. This is important, because the hotel is way too expensive for me to stay at otherwise. Our room was fantastic, and I took a couple surreptitious photos of the hotel as possible, so you guys could see the kind of ridiculous luxury of the hotel.
Now, one of the best parts of the St. Regis brand is the inclusion of a 24 hour butler service, which brings your luggage up for you, unpacks it, provides tea and coffee service on request, and presses two items of clothing per day for free. As you guys can see from the photo below, the only thing I had with me was my backpack, which was full of dirty laundry to boot, so I declined the unpacking service offered. Something about a tuxedo clad butler pulling out a plastic bag full of dirty laundry felt a little less than…luxurious. Especially when that was all I had!
However, since the hotel had me feeling all kinds of fancy, I sprung for a real wash with their laundry service, and my clothes (and nearby strangers) thanked me for the cleaning in a washing machine rather than a sink. Don’t ask me how much it cost.
I had an entire day to myself before PJ showed up, and since my flight from Ethiopia didn’t land until 4am, I slept in pretty late. That is, until a butler showed up with a fruit platter and I answered the door in my underwear. I’ve had better days.
Did you guys know it’s Ramadan? When I bought the tickets to Dubai, I didn’t even think about it, but the city essentially shuts down during the day for the entire month. Eating and drinking in public is against the law, and if you’re a dirty heathen they have special segregated areas for you to satiate your hunger if you must eat.
However, being Ramadan meant there were all kinds of awesome feasts going on every single night. Obviously PJ and I took full advantage of it, and devoured quantities of food that would otherwise be shameful. Don’t worry, full details are coming.
Like I said, I was there alone for the first day, so I ended up doing iftar (breaking of the fast) by myself. I asked the St. Regis concierge to arrange a reservation for me, and *deigned* to allow the chauffeur service to drive me to the restaurant.
If you guys aren’t familiar with Ramadan, and iftar, it’s a time that’s very family/ friend oriented, and everyone heads out in large parties to celebrate together. So when I showed up alone, in the middle of Dubai, I attracted many strange looks. Nevertheless, the food was amazing and threw me straight back to Jordan (which I only left a little over a month ago. Isn’t that weird?) I really miss that place! Anyway, PJ showed up around 11pm, and we stayed up late before heading to our supremely comfortable beds in preparation for the busy days ahead.
So, I promised last post that I’d tell you guys some of the different tricks I used in order to save money at Disneyworld. Now, I’ve already gone over using points to pay for a hotel stay here, but to summarize, it goes like this:
Disney’s Dolphin and Swan Hotels
There are two resorts on Disneyworld property that are not owned by Disney. These two, the Dolphin and the Swan, are actually part of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program, which means you can use points to stay there for free.
The Disney Dolphin is a category 4 hotel, which costs 10,000 points/night.
The Disney Swan is a category 5 hotel, which costs 12,000 points/night.
However, the SPG program also offers the 5th night free on any award redemption, meaning that you can score five nights at the Dolphin for 40,000 points and five nights at the Swan for 48,000 points.
In addition to this, last year Marriott bought Starwood, meaning that the two points programs have become interchangeable. Marriott points transfer to Starwood at a 3:1 ratio, so if you’ve got points to use in Marriott, you could always transfer them over and redeem a stay in that way. Transfers are instantaneous.
There’s one other thing I did in order to *really* get my money’s worth while I was out there. (Aside from the normal bring your own snacks/water, etc)
Booking an Official Disney Hotel
I booked a one night stay in an official Disney hotel. This was the first night of my vacation, and I did this for a number of reasons:
1. I was flying in and didn’t want to rent a car. Disney’s Magical Express offered me free transportation from the airport to the hotel.
2. Disney sends its resort guests MagicBands for free, and I wanted to get my hands on one of the new versions without paying for one.
3. Booking a package with Disney meant I qualified for special ticket offers. In this case, I received two free days on my ticket for booking a Magic Your Way package. In total, I got a five day park hopper for the price of a three day ticket.
4. Since you’re a resort guest, you get first pick on booking Disney’s Fastpasses online- a full 30 day head start over anyone else. This important when trying to get those elusive, really busy rides like Frozen Ever After and Seven Dwarves Mine Train.
5. I had reservations at a *very* expensive restaurant, and used the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan to score a discount on my eating costs for the day.
California Grill Restaurant
This last one requires some explanation. You see, Disney recently came out with a new brunch at one of its hotels. The restaurant, called the California Grill, is located in Disney’s Contemporary Resort and holds the distinction of costing $80/ person to enjoy.
Yes, that is expensive.
However, the California Grill is one of the best restaurants on property, and after reading EasyWDW’s review on the brunch, I felt like I had to go there. This is for a couple reasons:
First, eating brunch at the restaurant allows you to return at night and show your receipt, scoring premium seating for watching Magic Kingdom’s fireworks without the crowds.
Second, this brunch also features freshly made sushi, which you can watch the chefs prepare in front of you. Considering California Grill is known for its sushi (and its rolls can cost upwards of $24+ each), I figured getting to eat as much as I wanted was pretty great.
Finally, (and most importantly) this is the only meal on the entire dining plan that also includes alcohol. That’s right, this brunch includes bottomless mimosas in the cost of your meal. Disney specifically excludes drinks from their program, so getting to do this was really cool.
So, the California Grill costs two “table-service” credits on the dining plan. A regular dining plan only includes one “table service” and one “quick service” meal per day.
However, the deluxe dining plan comes with three “table service” credits. The current cost for the plan is $106/adult/day. I wouldn’t normally spend that much on food for myself in one day, but considering my breakfast alone was going to run me $96 with tax, I went ahead and got the plan.
What did this mean? It meant that my brunch was paid for. The deluxe dining plan also comes with three snacks per day. Since one of the major reasons I was going to Disney was for the Epcot Flower and Garden festival, and its main features are pavilions offering different snacks, I was really stoked about having three different ones freely available. I ended up using them on snack that ran about $6 each, which isn’t the *most* value you can get from them, but I ate whatever I wanted.
Finally, it meant that my dinner was also included at another table service restaurant. I ate at Tutto Italia Ristorante, a meal which included an appetizer, entree, dessert, and drink, and whose total hovered at around $71.
So, I paid $106 for food for the day.
In turn, I had:
$18 in snacks
$71 at dinner
= $185 in food, were I to pay out of pocket. And again, I can’t emphasize this enough, drinks were included at brunch. This is important because prices for alcoholic drinks at Disney will usually run you about $10 a pop, so getting it in the cost of my meal represented a fantastic deal.
Ok, now let me break down the costs of doing the Disney hotel for you, versus what I would have spent staying at a different hotel.
Costs With a Stay at Disney (Using the Magic Your Way Package):
1 night at Disney’s Coronado Springs: $273
5 day park hopper ticket to Disneyworld: $350 (two days free)
Transportation to Disneyworld from airport: $0
1 day Deluxe Disney dining plan: $106
Costs at an Offsite Hotel:
1 night stay elsewhere: $150 (hotels can range anywhere from $50-$500, but I would fall around here)
5 day park hopper ticket to Disneyworld: $473
Transportation to Disneyworld from airport: $30
Out-of-pocket dining: $185
So you see, staying at a Disney resort actually saved me money in comparison to doing it all on my own. Of course the longer you stay at their resorts, the more that hotel price piles on, which is why I switched over to the Disney Dolphin for the next five nights. On the other hand, bringing more than one person along to share a hotel room brings down your per person costs significantly. (Obviously).
The Dolphin does continue to charge a nightly “resort fee” (the bane of my existence), so the total cost of my hotel for those five nights was $140 and 40,000 SPG points.
Compare that to the $2200 it would cost were I to pay out of pocket.
Ok, one more price breakdown for you all, so you can really see the difference in costs:
1 Magic Your Way package as detailed above: $729
5 nights at the Disney Dolphin hotel: $140 and 40,000 SPG points
= 6 night stay at Disneyworld: $869 (including food for a day and all park tickets)
Out of Pocket Costs:
Individual pricing as detailed above: $850
5 nights at the Disney Dolphin hotel: $2257
= 6 night stay at Disneyworld: $3107 (including food for a day and all park tickets)
Ta-da! Just like that, we’ve paid less than a third of the cost for the whole trip!
I’d like to note (brag) again that since I have elite status with Starwood, they gave me a free upgrade to a newly refurbished corner room with two balconies and two separate fireworks views. (My elite status comes free with the American Express Platinum card).
That room upgrade alone was worth over a hundred dollars/night (compared to the room I booked).
Disney doesn’t have a(n) (official) loyalty program, so upgrades are at the whims of the people working there.
So there you have it! This is how I did Disney this time around, and how anyone can save when taking this budget-busting vacation.
I’m currently on my way to another airport…as will surprise none of you, I’m guessing. This time I’m headed out to Cancun for my very first trip to Mexico! I’m not even alone- one of my best friends, Chrissy, is coming with, and we plan on spending an amazing four days at an all-inclusive resort. Obviously, I plan to tell you all about it.
For the last five days I’ve been in sunny Orlando, Florida, spending time at one of my favorite places in the world: Disneyworld! That may seem strange…given all the other places I go, but there’s something really special about this place. Really tugs at my happy strings.
Anyway, this was my first time ever doing Disneyworld alone. It was definitely different, I’m not going to lie. I spent a lot of time considering whether to even come, but in the end I had already paid for a lot of it- and I’m a huge Disney nerd, so I made the choice to do it.
I posted previously about how I was going to stay on points, and the Disney Dolphin did not disappoint. Since I’m a Gold Starwood Preferred Guest member, they even upgraded my basic reservation to a brand new corner room with two (two!) separate balconies. This meant I could watch both the Epcot and Hollywood Studio fireworks from my room. So cool!
So what was it like going to Disneyworld by myself? Well..it was a lot of things.
It was really awkward every time I went to a restaurant as a party of one. People don’t expect people to show up to Disney by themselves. One morning, I went to order a coffee from the breakfast bar downstairs.
“One coffee, please,” I told the barista, pulling out my wallet.
“Two coffees?” She asked, looking over my shoulder for my nonexistent companion.
“…no. Just the one.”
This happened repeatedly, everywhere I went.
“Oh, are you with those kids? A group of three? Is that why you’re sitting alone?”
My favorite was the single rider line at Epcot’s Test Track ride, where the employee informed me and the guy behind me that our party was going to have to split up in order to get on the ride. Faking concern, I turned to the guy behind me and asked, “is that ok with you?”
He definitely thought I was hilarious.
However, there are many, many pros to going it alone. If anyone has ever gone to a Disney park with me (hi family!), then they know that at Disney I ain’t playing around. I walk a zillion miles per hour, weaving through the crowds and sliding past strollers like a ghost. I frequently disappear and end up waiting impatiently at the front of rides waiting for my party to show up. So! It was really cool to just…slip in everywhere and not have to wait for the other slowpokes to catch up.
In addition to this, there are tons of times where just a single spot remains on an attraction, and I was pulled from the line no less than three times in order to fill up a seat. That was pretty awesome. Being alone also meant that I was able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with no arguments or compromises. Super cool.
Now, I’m assuming many of you are familiar with Disney’s Fastpass+ system. If you’re not, it’s essentially an online ride reservation system. You pick the things you want to go on in advance, and have an hour long return window in which to come back and skip the line. Disney lets you pick three fastpasses up to sixty days in advance, and on the day of, you can make additional choices after you’ve used your first three. Most people will get a 4th and maybe even a 5th one, if they’re lucky.
Guys, the Fastpass system is amazing for single riders. I spent an entire day at Magic Kingdom during a very busy season, and didn’t wait once in a line. I showed up at park open, 9am, walked onto a few rides before lines built up, and then used Fastpasses the entire rest of the day.
Now this is going to sounds braggy, but only because it is. From 9am until 8:30pm, when I left, I rode:
Seven Dwarves Mine Train 3x
Space Mountain 7x
Peter Pan 3x
Pirates of the Caribbean 5x
Haunted Mansion 4x
Big Thunder Mountain 3x
Jungle Cruise 2x
People Mover 1x
Mickey’s Philharmagic 1x
Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor 1x
Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blaster 1x
It’s a Small World 1x
For those of you who aren’t super familiar with Disney, that is a ton of rides. I just refreshed the application on my phone and went from ride to ride, skipping all the lines. It was great!
Anyways, while being at the parks alone was sometimes a little sad (who am I going to share these memories with?), it was also a lot of fun. Would I do it again? Definitely.
I’ll share some tips and tricks I used to keep costs down on this trip later this week. In the meantime, enjoy those landscape photos of Disneyworld! (This is because it’s really creepy to take pictures of people while alone in a theme park full of children. I know better than that.)
Ok, today I’d like to do a brief overview of the cards I keep in my wallet, either because they have amazing perks, or because they offer tremendous value in regards to points/redemptions. As we go on, I’ll do an in-depth post of each card, detailing the ins and outs of each card. Are you guys ready for this? *Deep breath* Ok let’s do it!
#1 The American Express Personal Platinum card
I’m going to be upfront here and tell you guys that I’m a huge fan of the whole American Express line. I have 6 of their cards already, and the fact that they’ve waived all my annual fees has saved me a ton of money. This card has some of the best perks in the industry:
1. Access to the American Express concierge, who will find and book for you all kinds of cool stuff (such as reservations for restaurants you can’t normally get into, or tickets for Hamilton at face value) 2. Elite status with Hilton, Starwood, Marriott, Avis, National Car Rental, and Hertz
5x bonus points when you use the card to pay for airfare 3. $200/year airline fee credit, which reimburses you for incidentals such as bag fees (or upgrades to first class!) 4. A Priority Pass card, which gets you into participating Priority Pass airline lounges for free (more on this later)
Access to the American Express Centurion lounges in airports around the country (free massages!) 5. 50,000 point sign-up bonus, which is worth anywhere from $1000-$3500, depending on how you spend it 6. Tons of transfer partners, which offers amazing flexibility for redeeming points
A $100 credit to sign up for either Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, which saves TONS of time (though Global Entry also includes TSA PreCheck, so obviously do that one)
There are more, but these are the ones I personally find most valuable. I’ll go more in depth later.
#2 The American Express Business Platinum Card
Ok, I know some of you are going to ask, do I have to have a business to own this card? The short answer is no. There’s a lot of literature on the subject, but here’s a good article explaining business credit cards:
The business version of the platinum card has many of the same perks as the personal one, with one notable exception:
1. 50% rebate on all points redeemed for airfare on an airline of your choice in economy class, or on any airline in either business or first class. This effectively doubles the value of your points, as you can redeem through the Amex travel portal without worrying about figuring out which partners to transfer your points to. 2. This card also has a $200/year airline fee credit 3. Until January 25th, this card has a 100,000 sign up bonus, which is worth anywhere from $2000-7000, depending on how you spend it
#3 The Citi Prestige Card
I know I’ve already talked about this card a lot, but that’s because I rely on it so heavily.
1. The Citi Prestige concierge, which, like the American Express one, can book your tickets and reservations you otherwise wouldn’t be able to get. Booking hotels through the concierge also gets you the 4th night free on *any* stay, which can be invaluable. 2. 3x bonus points for money spent on airfare 3. 2x bonus points for spend on restaurants and entertainment 4. A 50,000 point sign up bonus, which, is worth between $750-$2000 5. Priority Pass membership for you, which also allows you to bring 2 extra guests into participating airline lounges for free 6. $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck (I use my spare credits on family and friends) 7. $250/year travel credit that is reimbursed automatically
#4 The Chase Sapphire Reserve
I have 7 different Chase cards, but the Reserve is the best of them. Released last year, it caused a wild outcry as hordes of people lined up to apply for it. So many people got it that Chase actually ran out of the metal that the cards were supposed to be manufactured with, and had to start sending out plastic cards. (The shame!)
1. Great transfer partners, which allow for the ultimate flexibility when redeeming points. 2. 3x bonus points on all travel and restaurants (even, like, Uber) 3. 50,000 point sign up bonus, which is worth between $750-$2000 4. Priority Pass membership for you and unlimited amounts of guests, which means you and you whole family can get into airline lounges for free. (You’re welcome Great-Step-Uncle George 2x removed) 5. $300/year travel credit, which, like the Citi Prestige, is reimbursed automatically when they see travel purchases on your account 6. $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck 7. Automatic 1.5 cent redemption of points on Chase’s travel portal, which, while not the best deal, saves you the headache of trying to work out transfer partners. The portal also includes Disneyworld hotels, unlike anyone else, which can save you a lot of money when traveling down to Orlando. (Who does that??)
#5 and #6 Starwood Preferred Gold Cards (both personal and business)
I’ve put these cards together because they offer some really similar benefits, though they do have a few differentiating features. When I’m not trying to meet spending goals or using other cards with bonus categories, these are the cards I use, because SPG points are widely considered the most valuable points out there (and also some of the hardest to earn)
1. They both offer sign up bonuses of 25,000 points, which can be worth…thousands of dollars. I just spent 40,000 points to stay at the Walt Disney World Dolphin for 5 nights, which saved me $2100. 2. The SPG business card offers free club access at any Sheraton hotel you stay at. While I was initially meh about this perk, I quickly realized that club access means both free breakfast and dinner, which I take good advantage of. It’s saved me a bundle of money when traveling 3. SPG award point redemptions (at Starwood hotels) give you the 5th night free on any stay, which saves you 20% on your stay 4. SPG has the most transfer partners of anyone, and its points often transfer at a more than 1:1 ratio, which means you can get more points by transferring 5. Every time you transfer 20,000 points to a partner, you get an additional 5,000 point bonus
So there you guys go. These are my top cards, which I keep using even after I’ve earned their sign up bonuses. Most of these are considered the “top-tier” of reward cards, and for good reason. The perks they offer can be worth thousands of dollars, and making use of these can take your travel experience from good to amazing.