2017 In Review: My Year As a Travel Hacking Mom

Well, it’s been a whirlwind. Laying the groundwork back in September 2016, I set out to make 2017 my year of travel, and of travel hacking. Travel hacking (using different strategies to earn free travel and perks) has at times been fun, tedious, nerve-wracking, and exciting. I’ve learned a lot. Such as, if you take good care of your credit and credit cards, it’s pretty easy and rewarding to earn free travel through credit card bonuses. I discovered that flying with a baby is not too bad. But flying or road-tripping with a toddler takes some serious joy out of travel. I’ve decided not to do it much until she’s about 3. Looks like we’ll be taking 2018 off. I can report though, that because of my hacking efforts, I’ve had some pretty cool experiences that otherwise would never have been on my radar.

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Central Park Fountain in October

 

First, here’s an overview of how I fared.

Number of Credit Cards Opened September 2016-December 2017:    13
Amount of Travel Miles Earned as Credit Card Bonuses:    630,000
Number of Overnight Trips Taken:    9
Number of Free Flight Legs Flown:    8
Number of Free Hotel Nights Spent:    9
Current Status:    330,000 points/miles plus free Alaska Companion Ticket and $99 Companion Ticket, and Free Hyatt night.
Current Credit Score:    805 – Excellent
Number of Weeks Walked on the Greenbelt (local travel and enjoyment):    25
Number of Miles Walked on the Greenbelt:    60+

Credit Card Roundup. I opened 13 credit cards in 14 months. Chase, American Express, Bank of America, and Barclays were kind enough help me earn travel with their cards. I applied for additional cards during the year and was denied for a few. None of my Citibank applications were successful. Since I applied for those later in the game, I’m pretty sure that my numerous new credit card accounts were a red flag to them. Barclays denied me the Barclay Arrival card, which I also applied for near the end of the year, for the same reason I’m pretty sure. But they did approve me for two other cards. Chase cut me off once I reached the 5/24 limit- 5 new accounts opened (from any bank) within the past 24 months. Darnit! This was the hardest to take because I had designs on some additional Chase cards. 

My method of tracking cards, spending, and bonuses was simple. I did not use a spreadsheet, but did create an index card each time I opened a card. On the card I included the credit card name, date opened, and details about the requirements for earning the bonus, such as how much I had to spend and by when, and what I would earn. I also wrote rewards account numbers (but not the credit card number). Also, this is really important: I logged into my credit card accounts on a weekly basis to check my balance and make sure I was aware of payment deadlines. If I would have had to pay late fees, services fees, or (ugh, no) interest on my spending, the travel perks I was earning would not be nearly as lucrative. I also opened apps on my phone for most of my favorite rewards programs. Hyatt, SPG, and Alaska Airlines, among others. Through the apps, I can check if my earned rewards have been posted and make reservations using points easily.

I have grown attached to several of the cards. I am a big-time convert to World of Hyatt, so it was a no-brainer to renew the Chase Hyatt card at the one year anniversary. It was a $75 hit, but I get one free hotel night at a Category 1-4 property.

The Hilton Surpass, recently redesigned as the Hilton Ascend card, confers Hilton Gold status for a $75 annual fee, providing  free breakfast and available room upgrades at Hilton Hotels, even on award stays. I was able to put that to use. 

And I love, love, love having the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. Free access to Priority Select Lounges, and free acquisition of Global Entry clearance have made a big difference in my flight experiences. On our most recent trip to New York City, once I finally got my Global Entry status activated, my daughter and I sped through security way ahead of the regular line, and were enjoying free lounge food and drinks when the rest of the crowd finally made it through. Nice. In 2017 I actually made money off of the Reserve card. I spent $450 for the card, and then received a $300 travel credit in late 2016 and another $300 credit in 2017. That’s a net return of $150. Chase has changed their rules on this, so new card owners will have to be happy with a straightforward $300 per year credit from the get-go. I just renewed my Reserve card, and will also receive a $300 travel credit in 2018. Once travel credits are given I will end up paying $150 for the privilege of earning 3x points on travel and dining expenses, complimentary lounge access and airport restaurant credits, all manner of travel insurance, and the cool feeling of handing over that heavy metal card when I use it. This card could be a lifer.

What I learned. It takes some work to manage that many credit cards.  I was organized enough to secure all but one bonus on the credit cards I received, which mostly entailed spending enough money on the card within the established amount of time (e.g. spend $3,000 within 3 months). I failed to earn 1 of 3 free Wyndham Rewards nights when I mistakenly thought I had spent enough before the deadline, but I did earn 2 free nights with my first purchase on the card, so it wasn’t a fully epic fail. I also had some trouble physically managing them. I lost track of a card or two I loaned to my teenagers. That didn’t go so well. Live and learn and I’ll be a little more cautious next time. Several of my cards have already been closed. More will be as we get close to the annual fee renewal date. This should make managing those that remain a lot easier.

My biggest credit card mistake was opening a no fee Amtrak card as one of my first. For one thing, there is no Amtrak where we live. I know- what was I thinking? I guess I was looking at it as a safe first card experiment. For another, I wasted one of my 5/24 cards (Chase limits), so instead of getting one more Chase card, which are generally awesome, I used one of my slots on a Bank of America card, which has much less stringent requirements. I really, really wanted the Chase Business Ink card and both Southwest Airlines cards. I guess those will have to wait for another year. I did end up using the Amtrak bonus miles by the way. My son, baby daughter and I rode the train for free between New York and Washington, DC in May, so all is not lost. But I would have gotten that card much later.

I have also learned that travelling with a toddler is quite a challenge. When we flew to Disneyland in late January my baby was only 9 months old, not especially mobile or active. During 4 separate flights, a number of restaurant meals, and 2 long days in a stroller at Disneyland, we had no major baby drama. By the time she was 14 months for our trip to a wedding in San Diego, all of that had changed. Now, restaurant meals were a series of taking turns walking the restaurant floor with the baby. Keeping her out of every little thing at her grandparents house was a constant chore. The flight home was filled with crying in our row (baby and adults!) and dirty looks of exasperation from the rows around us. It was stressful, although it does really make you appreciate excellent flight attendants and the folks who smilingly accept that your baby is not having a good trip.

Our road trip to Mendocino when she was 16 months old was not better. I tried driving at night so that she would sleep and make it easier on everyone. Didn’t work. She was awakeish in her car seat until the wee hours, sometimes calm or fitfully dozing, othertimes letting us know in no uncertain terms that car seats majorly suck.

Highlights: We made 2 trips to New York, 3 trips to California, and several local escapes. We attended a wedding in San Diego, a 100th birthday in Montana, and trip to retrace important memories in Mendocino.

My visit to Pennsylvania and New York City with my 14 year old daughter in October was a blast. On this trip baby stayed home–thank you sweet daddy! And I also discovered that my teenage daughter and I can have a good time together, especially when the trip is geared mostly to her interests.

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We had 6 amazing days of family wedding fun, treating ourselves, and shopping. On this trip, all the flights and hotel nights were free through reward redemption. Our only expenses were some ground transportation and food, but most of our travel money went to shopping for for said teenage daughter along 5th Avenue and at Times Square. We got to stay two nights at the swanky Park Hyatt New York, earned as a Hyatt Card sign-up bonus. This is something I NEVER would have paid for, or even used points for normally.

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Overlooking Central Park

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Our trip to Disneyland in January/February with the ladies in our family was also amazing. It was my niece’s first time there, everyone was in great spirits, and there was zero drama. We rode the rides, saw the parades, drank Prosecco at downtown Disney, discovered the Baby Care Center where I could nurse my baby with some privacy, and generally had a complete blast.

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We had so much fun that we just went again in late January 2018. I’m not really a full believer in the Disney-lifestyle, but we have made some great family memories on our Disney trips these last three years. Next year when my baby is three or nearly three, I will love taking her for a very different kind of Disney experience than I have been having with my teenage daughter. ToonTown and Fantasyland all the way.

Finally, a quick word about the Greenbelt walks. At the beginning of the year I had vowed to walk on the greenbelt with my baby every week in 2017. With our wild and crazy winter weather last year, and subsequent trail closures, our plans imploded a bit.

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I loved what we did do, which was walk more than half of the weeks of the year, cover every segment of the trail, and get outside in the fresh air together for hours and hours. It wasn’t quite what I have intended, but it was something special anyway.

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Thanks for reading. If you got something from reading my posts, or if you have some suggestions for making it more user-friendly, feel free to send my a PM or comment to this post.

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Next up: What’s in store for 2018 and beyond? I’ve got some plans and can’t wait to share. I said no more travelling with a toddler, but how can I help myself? We’re gonna do some things.

 

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