Wednesday, 13 November 2013

It's A Wrap - Why I Didn't Buy Matthew McConaughey's Shirt

When my shoulder forced a visit to the hospital in Los Angeles, I was very grateful to have my wife along. She made sure that I was buckled in the car, shifted gears for me, and checked my blind spots whenever I had to change lanes. When we got to the hospital, Lori filled out all the paperwork and made sure I was comfortable while the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. Having her along was a complete blessing and for a couple of hours her attention was focused solely on me.

Or so I thought. Turns out that while I wasn't looking Lori might have been sneaking a peek or two in other directions. Sure she paid attention to me while we were in the hospital, but as soon as I was discharged and it was time to leave, the truth came out. "You know, on the way here I noticed this great little store that I'd love to stop at..." What can I say? The girl never stops shopping.

Hollywood production clearance sales

The shop Lori spotted while I was racing to the hospital is called "It's A Wrap!". It looks like any other Salvation Army type clothing store, but it's actually a clearance house for movie wardrobes. After a movie or TV show finishes shooting the clothes that are worn during the filming are consigned to It's A Wrap for sale. It's A Wrap attaches a tag to each piece of clothing so it can be traced back to the film or show that it came from. Display racks have a header card on them so you know that everything on that rack came from the specified show.

It's A Wrap movie clothes for sale

This was far more interesting than most places Lori makes me stop. I've always thought that I have movie star looks, now I could have movie star clothes! I began searching for a shirt that might have belonged to somebody famous that would look good on me. Spying a rack of clothes from The Lincoln Lawyer I got excited. If a shirt could make Matthew McConaughey look good, imagine what it could do for me! I searched the rack but didn't really find anything and then it dawned on me. Silly Steve....Matthew McConaughey doesn't wear shirts in movies! What was I thinking.

Hollywood Burbank buy movie clothes

I checked some other displays but apparently movie stars don't come in my shape or size. Denzel Washington's stuff from Flight? Too small. Nathan Fillion's Castle wardrobe? Maybe if I invested in a good pair of Spanx. There was some stuff there from Breaking Bad, but I'm really not hip enough to pull that kind of look off. And so it went until I found some stuff in my size leftover from an old Kevin James movie. Great....

clothing used in Grey's Anatomy TV show

Therein lies the problem with It's a Wrap. If you find a great shirt, you can't ask if they have it in another size. What the studio sends them is what they have, and while it's fascinating to look around, the odds of you finding exactly what you want in your size aren't super high. Unless of course you're a size zero supermodel, as I suspect a high number of my readers are. Then you might have a little more luck.

Hollywood shoes used in movies for sale

Speaking of size zero supermodels, Lori was having a lot more luck than I was (That should keep me out of the doghouse for a little while). Of course, she was spending all her time in the shoe section where $600 Manolo Blahnik shoes were marked down to $300. Carrie Bradshaw would have jumped at the deal, but fortunately for me Lori knows our budget limits very well. The only purchase we ended up making was a black, Nike jacket from the movie Juno for $7. It was supposed to be my jacket, but I haven't seen it since the day we bought it. I suspect that somebody has decided it looks better on them than it does on me. I can't say I disagree with them. 

It's A Wrap Hollywood movie and TV clothes reseller

From a man who seriously dislikes shopping, It's A Wrap was a lot of fun. Even though you know most of the clothes came off background extras and minor cast members, it's fun to hold up things and try and remember if you saw a major movie star wearing it during their last film. Sure it was a little depressing that all Hollywood people are in better shape than me, but to be honest I kind of knew that anyways. Spending an hour or so sorting through their castoff clothing was a fun and (considering I had just come from the hospital where industrial strength pain killers were administered to help me deal with my shoulder) painless experience.

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday, 11 November 2013

Life Lessons via Maroon 5

As much as I'd looked forward to it happening, I can honestly say the moment didn't unfold as I'd envisioned it. Of course I'd never really settled on a singular vision of what this event would look like. Some things I was fairly sure about. Being on the road was a given. Things not going according to plan always seemed like a likely occurrence. The fact that we were outdoors came as a bit of a surprise, although not as much as the fact that we were standing in the middle of a driving rain storm and not bothering to seek shelter.

Adam Levine standing at the bottom of a hill and telling us it was time to go home.....That part was new.

Waiting for Maroon 5 at the Gorge amphitheater in Washington State
Happy, waiting for the show to start

In hindsight, buying tickets for an outdoor concert by Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson for late September was probably not my best idea. The fall weather in the Pacific Northwest lends itself more towards splashing in puddles than sitting on lawn blankets, and we're not exactly known as a family of outdoor enthusiasts at the best of times. Still, the combination of two artists that I really enjoy with a chance to finally see the Gorge Amphitheater at a really good price (under $40) was too much to resist. 

My kids on the other hand, probably could have resisted. Perhaps demonstrating that they understand weather forecasts better than I do, there was definitely some hesitation on their part after the words "High winds and driving rain" kept getting repeated on the radio. One of them was even bold enough to ask whether or not this trip was a "good idea", forcing me to take the time to explain that "Weather forecasts are usually exaggerated and it'll probably clear up by showtime. Besides, what's a little rain when it comes to seeing a concert? You know back when I was your age...", but I never got to finish that thought. You'd think that eye-rolling would be a silent activity, but I assure you that teenagers can do it at a volume that drowns out whatever lesson you're trying to convey. 

The route to the Gorge amphitheater in Washington State
Looks like a great day for a concert!

So when we arrived at the Gorge and there was no rain falling, I was feeling rather pleased with myself. Sure it was a little breezy, but in the 25 year history of concerts at the Gorge they've never had to cancel a show for weather and the fact that it was a little difficult to maintain a fancy hairdo didn't seem like it was going to be enough to stop that streak. I allowed myself to relax just a little, figuring that this evening was going to go off as planned. 

Wind at the Gorge before concert
Just a little breezy in the parking lot

You see, when I make all these travel plans I do my very best to make sure that everything goes smoothly. It's not because I want to enjoy myself and don't tell, her but it's not because I want Lori to be happy either. I spend hour after hour making and revamping plans because I want my kids to enjoy traveling. It's one of those three golden rules I try and leave them with. Love thy neighbor, honor thy mother and father, and thou shalt not stay home on long weekends. I'm pretty sure it's biblical even if there's some reading between the lines required.

Our arrival at the Gorge was perfectly timed, just as the first singer who I didn't recognize was finishing her set. This left us time to make the hike up to the empty areas at the top of the amphitheater to find a place to set up before Kelly Clarkson hit the stage. It's quite a long walk up to the top of the Gorge, and as we approached the empty areas up at the top it became apparent that the parking lot had been in a sheltered location. The wind and rain blowing over the top of the amphitheater were really quite strong and standing at the top of the hill was something akin to trying to stay upright in a wind tunnel. Coincidentally, the top of the hill was also where all the Porta Pottys were. You want a real travel experience, try using one of those things in the pitch black with 35 mph winds blowing you around. Very, very funny to watch as long as it's not you who needs to go to the bathroom.

We set up in as sheltered a location as we could find near the top of the hill and waited for the show to start. There was plenty of entertainment watching people chasing things around the amphitheater that they weren't hanging onto quite tight enough. A few people were even brave enough to go right to the top of the Gorge and stand against the wind for as long as they could, although more than a couple of them ended up getting blown head over heels down the hillside. It was great to watch, but after a while you couldn't help but notice that the time between sets was stretching really long.

Hillside seats for the Gorge amphitheater
Getting a little tired of waiting...

I guess we all knew it was coming. After the Sugarland incident there's no messing around with concert stages and wind anymore. The first sign was about an hour into the delay when you suddenly saw all the concessions begin to close down. The next indicator was when the roadies started removing band equipment from the stage, and then about ten minutes after that Adam Levine came out on stage with Kelly Clarkson to tell us that the show was cancelled.

Maroon 5 concert cancelled at the Gorge amphitheater in Washington State
3 of us look sad the show is cancelled. One just looks confused.

This left me standing on a hillside in the driving rain, apologizing to my children for dragging them out here on a night like this. I tried to explain that I'd done my research and spent the time making the plans right, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be. In the midst of my apology however my kids stopped me and said "Dad...don't worry about it. This was better than a concert. It was an adventure. It was great!"

That was the moment that made my whole year. Knowing that your kids can enjoy the journey even if the destination is a complete bust takes all the pressure off. Travel isn't always smooth. It's filled with broken down buses and uncomfortable nights spent sleeping on the floor of airports, but if you can consider it all an adventure then you've probably learned all I can teach you about travel. Congratulations kids.

Now let's work on that whole "Honor thy Mother and Father" thing.

Written by Steve Pratt

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Hotel Loyalty Programs: Confusing the Cards

Without bragging, I consider myself a reasonably bright guy. I did really well in high school, I've got a business degree, and I actually enjoy helping my kids with the word problems and brain teasers that their teachers seem to think makes for great homework assignments. Most of the time if there's something that I decide to set my mind to, I can figure it out. With one exception. Hotel loyalty programs confuse the heck out of me. 

Club Carlson Hilton Hyatt Fairmont Best Western loyalty cards

Now let me be clear...I understand the basics of the programs. You earn redeem points for free nights. That's pretty simple. I also have a working knowledge of some of the more obscure parts of the programs. Point Breaks, Points & Cash Supplements, Axon Rewards...I've worked with each of these in the past and while they can be complicated, I understand how they work. When I say I don't understand the hotel loyalty programs, I'm referring to the names.

You see, Lori and I are members of more than a dozen different hotel programs. Each of these programs have their own unique names for the levels of their loyalty program. During any given stay we may be welcomed to the front desk as a valued Diamond member, a Platinum member, a Gold member, a Red or Blue member (those are not the same program by the way), a Silver member, or a Classic, Preferred or Club member. I believe one program card even refers to me as Tutankhamun the Boy King of Egypt, yet surprisingly that isn't good enough to qualify for a free breakfast.

The importance of keeping these levels straight is huge. Being a gold member at Hilton or Starwood will possibly get you a nicer room and a free breakfast. Pulling up to a Hyatt with a Gold card puts you on the same level as the dog sleeping behind the counter. A Platinum card can get you the world at a Fairmont property, but it will only earn you blank stares from a Best Western agent. Even properties where it sounds like I should be important by being a Gold Ambassador will quickly turn their attention from me if a Platinum Ambassador should arrive at check-in. If a Platinum Royal Ambassador shows up, I believe we're all required to bow. 

Entrance to Fairmont Suite in San Francisco

Some programs even manage to take shots at you with their loyalty program. Kimpton names the two levels of their program as Inner Circle and In Touch. Since I don't stay with Kimpton enough to qualify for either of those titles, does that make me an Out of Touch member who can't hang with the cool kids? Club Carlson concerns me even more as their top level is called Concierge. Every time I wander through a Radisson I glance over at the concierge desk and wonder if that's an employee or just somebody who's stayed here one too many times.

Even though it confuses me, for now I guess me and my fistful of loyalty cards will just keep on traveling. One day I hope to get a better grip on these programs as there's something slightly embarrassing about standing at the counter of a Marriott and fumbling through a half dozen cards from other chains while looking for the right one. At least most of the time my correct status, whatever it may be, is included on any reservation that I make. I wish I could say the same thing about the airline programs. I guarantee you that I'm not in the Inner Circle of any of those programs.

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday, 16 September 2013

Six Flags Magic Mountain: Is the Flash Pass Worth It?

I'm sure this might come as a bit of a shock to some of you (it did to me) but apparently I don't make all the decisions in this family anymore. It used to be that I would unilaterally select and book all of our family travel arrangements, and never would I be questioned about any of the plans that I made. If there were any shortcomings or flaws in my chosen itineraries they weren't noticed, or at least they didn't get pointed out to me until well after the trip. It was a silent, traveling dictatorship, and it was wonderful.

Dining Room in the Rio players suite Las Vegas
"Sit down Dad. We need to talk to you about these travel plans...."

Nowadays things are a little different. My kids are beginning to identify and champion the cause of their favorite destinations, pushing for the things that they want in a family vacation. Take our recent trip to Southern California for example. I had decided that we would spend one day at Six Flags Magic Mountain followed by two days at Universal Studios. My older two children, thrill ride addicts that they are, insisted that our time would be better spent in reverse with two days at Six Flags and only one at Universal. Years ago this wouldn't have been an issue as I could have swayed the voting members to my way of thinking with promises of candy. Unfortunately these days my kids have far more disposable income than I do and are perfectly capable of buying their own candy. If I wanted my itinerary to stand I was going to have to negotiate something far more creative than "1 day at Six Flags and five Aero bars for each of you!"

Character pictures at Six Flags Magic Mountain
One day of posing with characters should be plenty for anyone...

Enter the Flash Pass. Six Flags' version of Disney's Fastpass is an electronic ride reservation system that allows you to book a time to ride an attraction from anywhere in the park. You simply scroll up or down to the ride you want to go on and the Flash Pass will tell you what time you can make a reservation for. Press "Reserve", then show up at your appointed time to be allowed to cut in at the front of the line for your chosen attraction. The time you'll have to wait for your reservation depends on which of the three versions of the Flash Pass you buy. The basic Flash Pass figures out the current wait time for an attraction and makes you a reservation for the normal time you would have spent standing in line, so if it was 10 am and you wanted to reserve a ride on Tatsu which had a wait time of 1 hour at that point, you'd be reserving a spot for 11 am. The gold Flash Pass cuts the wait time in half, so your reservation would be for 10:30 am, and the platinum Flash Pass cuts the wait by 90% so you'd be able to ride Tatsu at 10:06 am, which most likely doesn't leave you enough time to walk to the ride as it is.

Flash Pass sign Six Flags Magic Mountain

My kids' objection to only having one day in Six Flags was that the lines can get quite long and it's hard to get on all the great roller coasters in one day if you're there during a busy season. My offer to help them make the most of their one day by buying them the Flash Passes was briefly debated and then accepted, probably with the realization that getting anything out of Dad before he uses his veto power (Otherwise known as the "We can't afford it" card.) is a victory to be proud of. 

It's also possible that they were counting on Dad's inability to resist upgrades. The deal I made with my kids was that I would buy the two who wanted to spend all day on the rides the Gold Flash Pass and they would accomplish as much as they could with only half the wait times. Somewhere along the line I got caught up in the excitement of it all, and when I got to the counter to purchase the Flash Passes I heard the word "Platinum" leave my mouth. Needless to say my kids were very happy and I was somewhat confused as to what just happened. Fortunately, it's a normal state of being for me.

Platinum Flash Pass Six Flags Magic Mountain

So with their Platinum Flash Passes in hand, my kids set out to plan their conquest of the Magic Mountain roller coaster kingdom. Now it's important to note that not all rides are included in the Flash Pass program. X2, the most insane ride in the park, is only available as an add on to either the Gold or Platinum passes for $15 per ride. The newest roller coaster, Full Throttle, is only available with the Platinum passes, again at a $15 per ride surcharge. Neither of these were happening, so my kids decided to start their day at Batman the Ride, which to their delight was available instantly.

Wait times on Platinum Flash Pass at Six Flags Magic Mountain

Well kind of instantly. I mean, it took 15 minutes to get across the park to where the ride was located. Then, when they got there, my kids found that there was no line for Batman and they just walked on. It was kind of anti-climatic and I had a moment of wondering if I'd just wasted a bunch of money in an attempt to skip non-existent lines. Fortunately for us (and unfortunately for everybody without Flash Passes) the lines got a fair bit longer as the day went on. 

Wait time for Superman at Six Flags Magic Mountain

There were definitely some rides where the Flash Pass worked beautifully. Goliath, one of the biggest, fastest roller coasters in the park was a perfect example. Although the posted wait time was almost an hour, my kids went from making a reservation while standing in front of the ride to actually riding in under five minutes. There were some rides where the Flash Pass didn't work all that well though. Superman, one of my children's favorite rides, was a horrible experience. Even with a reservation, the point where they allow the Flash Passes to cut is still about 20 minutes from the front of the line. Combine that with the fact that Superman has perhaps the worst line organization of any ride in the history of theme parks and it quickly became apparent that the Flash Pass wasn't going to be of any use to us on this ride.

Flash Pass entrance sign at Six Flags Magic Mountain

In the end though, our experience with the Flash Passes was a fairly good one. Despite deciding to visit Magic Mountain on a Saturday in the summer and arriving a little late (just after noon), we managed to ride everything in the park as often as we wanted and still finished about an hour before park closing. In the past our visits to Six Flags have ended in three of us wanting to go back to the hotel room while the older two kids wanted to stay right until the last minute to try out "just a few more rides". Being able to leave the park with everybody happy and still beat the closing traffic out of the parking lot was a really nice treat.

You can ride now Platinum Flash Pass Six Flags Magic MountainSi

So it was convenient, but was it worth it? Flash Passes are a lot of fun, but they're also a bit pricey. A basic Flash Pass costs about $40 per person. Gold will run you $60 per person, and if you're one of those people who get caught up in the excitement like me, a Platinum Pass will set you back $90 per person. There are some small discounts as you add people to the Flash Pass, but you'll still be at least doubling the price of admission. Is that kind of investment a good idea for your group? It was for ours because it kept us from having to buy admission for our family for a second day, but you may be in a different situation. Maybe everybody in your family likes to ride thrill rides. Maybe you've got far more time than you do money. Or in the best case scenario, maybe you can still bribe your kids with candy. As much as I felt the Flash Pass was a good buy for our family, five Aero bars would have been a much cheaper investment.

Written by Steve Pratt


Friday, 6 September 2013

The Full Throttle Roller Coaster - A Story in Pictures

Six Flags Magic Mountain California

Full Throttle Six Flags

Full Throttle Magic Mountain

Full Throttle Roller Coaster

Full Throttle crossing Superman entrance

Crazy roller coasters

Providence Medical Center Los Angeles

This post is a part of Friday Daydreamin at R We There Yet Mom. If you didn't get here from there, you should really go check them out. There's people there who might actually be capable of attending Six Flags without hurting themselves. They must exercise or something.

Written by Steve Pratt

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

A Fireworks Failing

One of my favorite parts of any major holiday is the fireworks show. It doesn't matter to me if it's New Years Eve, Canada Day, or any other day deemed important enough to warrant aerial explosions, I love watching the show. I have this great vision of lying back on a hillside watching the fireworks rocket into the air, the only sounds being the distant booms of the fireworks and the "Oohs!" and "Aahs!" of the crowd.

I wonder what that's like?

Victoria BC Canada Day fireworks

Truth is, firework shows are usually crowded masses of people. You have to get there hours early to get even a remotely decent viewing spot and then hope that nothing more than a light breeze wanders into the area and cancels the entire show. The good news is that if the show actually happens, you'll probably hear a good deal of those longed for "oohs and aahs". 

Unless of course you're sitting near our family. It seems that over the years my children have become a little jaded towards fireworks shows. What used to leave them awestruck when they were little, now barely constitutes a reason to look up form their cell phones. As for the gasps of excitement...well if you find yourself in our vicinity you're more likely to hear comments like these, taken from our Canada Day firework experience in Victoria:

Victoria fireworks Canada Day

"You know how they should start every fireworks show? They should have a guy dressed like Wile E. Coyote chase a guy dressed like the roadrunner onto the barge that they shoot the fireworks from. That would be awesome!"

Victoria harbor fireworks

"Gee Dad, you look much younger in the flickering firework light."

Victoria BC harbor fireworks

"These larger fireworks are really interfering with my 4G reception!"

Canada Day fireworks in Victoria harbor

"Do you think they're shooting the fireworks at that boat over there? That would be so cool, kind of like a real life game of Battleship!" (Followed by a couple minutes of "B4....Miss!" every time a firework went up.)

Canada Day celebrations in Victoria

"They're playing O Canada so this must be the last song right? I kind of wish our national anthem was shorter."

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday, 2 September 2013

The Jam Cafe in Victoria - A Poetic Review

We woke in Victoria,
And food was our plan.
We needed great breakfast,
So we went to Jam!

Sign outside the Jam Cafe in Victoria

The place is quite small,
A bit hard to find.
For the easiest way,
Just look for the line.

On the sidewalk you'll stand,
To wait for your spot.
There's no reservations,
And it will get quite hot! 

The line outside the Jam Cafe in Victoria

They bring you some coffee,
While you stand in line,
The rest will use cell phones,
To help pass the time.

The line moves quite quickly,
In fact it's quite snappy.
In no time at all,
You'll be in and be happy!

Table inside Jam Cafe in Victoria, BC

You'll scour the menu,
To help make your plan.
Oh wait, what is this?
They've got Green Eggs and Ham!

Green eggs and ham from Jam Cafe in Victoria

You have to order it, 
You know you must.
You don't know the chef,
But Dr. Seuss you do trust!

The others they choose,
Their options are many.
Your husband selects,
The Pulled Pork Eggs Benny!

Pulled pork eggs bennedict from Jam Cafe in Victoria

The food comes quite quick,
And it all looks fantastic.
Good thing that your pants,
Have a waistband elastic.

Before you dive in,
You look at your daughter.
She ordered whipped cream,
Just like you taught her.

Nutella and Banana Sandwich from Jam Cafe in Victoria

Her sandwich is large,
And filled with Nutella.
She's making a mess,
But you decide not to tell her.

Your breakfast is great,
In fact it's a winner,
But it's just so big,
You won't be hungry for dinner.

Jam Cafe in Victoria Green Eggs and Ham

At the end of the meal,
When it's all cleared away,
Your husband goes up,
To the Counter to pay.

You look at your youngest,
Who ordered no food.
Said she wasn't hungry,
Was not in the mood.

But now she looks happy,
Much to your surprise,
The waitress brought suckers,
A bunch was her prize.

End of meal suckers from Jam Cafe in Victoria

So when in Victoria,
Make it part of your plan.
542 on Herald Street,
Is the address for Jam!

Written by Steve Pratt

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The "N" Word at Disney

Disneyland letters in front of parkI'm linking up with Deb from Focused on the Magic again this week for her Wordless Wednesday blog hop. In her infinite wisdom Deb has decided that this weeks Disney topic is to be the letter 'N', which is perfect for me. As the father of three teenage children, I love the letter 'N'. In fact, it forms half of my favorite parenting word....NO! I mean sure, I prefer to say yes to my children whenever possible, but there's so many places you can use the word "no" at Disney....

NO, you can't have a lollipop for breakfast...

Disney candy lollipop

NO, it's not real money...

Pirate treasure on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland

NO, we're not waiting that long...

Cars Land Radiator Springs Racers huge wait time

NO! Why would you even ask?...

On top of the Matterhorn in Fantasyland at Disneyland


Outside It's a Small World at Disneyland

And of course the most frequently used "no" sentence of all....

NO, we can't keep him.

Tigger character photo outside Winnie the Pooh

This post is a part of Wordless Wednesday over at Focused on the Magic. If you didn't get here from there, you should really head on over and check out some of the fantastic people that hang out there on Wednesdays. Some of them might even let their kids climb the Matterhorn if they asked. They're known as the "cool parents".

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday, 26 August 2013

10 Promos We Used This Summer to Keep Travel Costs Down

People think we're rich. Not One Direction rich, but the general consensus is that for the amount of travel that we do, money must not be a real issue for us. I promise you nothing could be further from the truth. We do our traveling on a shoestring budget (a little too shoestring sometimes) and it's only by endlessly chasing deals and promotions that we can afford to travel further than the grocery store down the street, and truth be told with the price of gas up here that grocery store had better be running a promotion as well.

If you've been following along with us on Facebook, you know that our summer has been full of fun and travel, but it's also been full of promotions. Here's 10 of the deals that we took advantage of this summer to help keep our costs to a minimum.

Free Night at the Fairmont Empress in Victoria

This is the only one of these tips that wouldn't necessarily be available to everyone, but it's the outcome of taking advantage of another promo a couple of years ago and being quick on the draw when the Fairmont Lifetime Platinum deal was available. We get one free night per year, so this year we used it at the Fairmont Empress. One of the nice parts about Fairmont is that they let you use a suite upgrade coupon at the same time as your free night coupon, so we paid for one night in a base room and got two nights in a one bedroom suite. Sure my family nearly killed me when they found out there was no air conditioning, but it was still a fantastic deal!

In front of the Fairmont Empress in Victoria

Using Points at the Hyatt Regency Valencia

I don't know what was going on, but on the days that we wanted to visit Six Flags the rates were through the roof at all the Valencia area hotels. I'm talking well over $200 a night in an area that usually costs around $100. Fortunately the Hyatt Regency Valencia is way under priced on points, coming in at only 8,000 Gold Passport points per night. We had that many points available in our account, but even if we hadn't we could have purchased 8,000 points for $192 directly from Hyatt and saved some money that way, even cheaper if we'd taken advantage of one of their frequent 50% bonuses when buying points.

Free Night at the Sheraton Universal in Los Angeles

About a year ago Starwood sent Lori an offer to stay one night with them at any of their properties and get a free night sometime in the next year. We spent a night at the Kamloops Four Points a short distance away from our home, and then held on to our free night until we used it this summer at the Sheraton Universal. Paying just over $100 in Kamloops to earn a free $200 night in Los Angeles was a great money saver for us (and it actually got us interested in the Starwood properties as well, so win/win).

Hollywood sign at Sheraton Universal

Free Nights at the Radisson in Buena Park

Disneyland hotels seem to be raising their rates this year. I used to be able to count on staying a few blocks away from the park for under $100 a night, but this year everything was closer to $200. That's too rich for my blood, so we decided to use some of our points that we earned in Florida last year during the Club Carlson 50,000 points per night giveaway. The entire week at the Radisson Buena Park only cost a little over 100,000 points, so the two nights we spent at the Radisson in Melbourne last summer covered our week in Disney this year. 

Disneyland Passes via Airmiles

I'm constantly in envy of my American friends and their ability to rack up huge points by applying and cancelling credit cards. Our options in Canada are pretty bad (unless you really want enough points for five free movies) and while I've all but given up on the Airmiles program, they still make Disneyland passes relatively affordable. We managed to get four of our passes from Airmiles, meaning we only had to shell out $300 for one five day pass. Of course this was our first time back sine our annual passes expired almost two years ago. That $300 seemed like a million when I had to pay it out.

Fireworks in the shape of Mickey Mouse at Disneyland

Obtaining Hilton Gold in Edmonton

I like having hotel status. It's not the self-important feeling of being able to say "But I'm a diamond guest!" It's the actual perks and benefits that appeal to me as a way to save money. Free breakfasts and free internet have a definite value to our family, but staying 16 nights at one chain doesn't seem like a cost effective route to obtaining that savings. Fortunately, there's often a shortcut. This year Carson Wagonlit Travel offered a promotion to it's customers that would provide Gold status in the Hilton program after only four stays. We decided to bounce back and forth between two different Hilton properties in Edmonton for the four nights we were there, and now we have Gold Status in Hilton until March of 2015. This didn't necessarily save us any money this summer (although it didn't cost us any either...both hotels were running about $100 a night) but the first time we use our status for free breakfast it'll start paying off big time. 

United Airlines Fare Sale

Do you know what the hardest part of booking a vacation is? It's waiting. I know that if I wait long enough there will be a sale, but sometimes I don't realize which price was the sale until it's too late. My target price for Seattle to Anaheim is around $75 base fare. The airlines were sitting at about $85 this year, and I was wondering if maybe prices had just gone up and $85 was as good as it was going to get. I held on until three weeks before we were planning on going, but just as I was about to throw in the towel and pay the $85, United had a sale for $59. Sure we had to route through San Francisco (a few days after the plane crash there), but at least the price was right.

United Airlines Plane in San Francisco

Jonas Brothers Tickets

No, you're not the first to suggest that the easiest way to save money here would be to just not go to the show, but this was the catalyst for the entire run to Vegas. There was no trip until Travelzoo put the Jonas Brothers tickets on for $15. That 75% markdown led to us spending a week in Vegas and visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. It meant my kids got to see their second Cirque show, and it introduced us to the magic that is the Krispy Kreme milkshake. It meant we got to play KISS mini-golf and meet up with both old and new friends while spending time in the desert. Truth be told, the Jonas Brothers probably cost me a lot more money than I saved, but it was a really good deal on the tickets. 

Posing with Jonas Brothers poster in Las Vegas

Mandalay Bay / Royal Caribbean Promotion

Vegas promotions are a little different than everywhere else. It's almost unheard of to book a room in Vegas that doesn't come with some kind of room credit or free drinks. On occasion however, they overdo it. We were looking for a couple of nights at the beginning of the week when somebody pointed out a cross promotion between Royal Caribbean and MGM. Essentially what they were doing was attaching ridiculous amounts of food credit to the rooms. For example, we booked two nights at Mandalay Bay for $62 a night and it came with $150 food credit. Even factoring in a crazy $25 per night resort fee, the net cost for one of the nicer hotels in Vegas was only $12 per night. At that price we decided that it would be nice to have some extra space so we booked another room under Lori's name and got a total of $300 worth of food credit. Ever told your kids to go crazy in Starbucks then signed a $115 bill without even the slightest cringe? It's fun. I highly recommend it. 

ISIC Car Rental Rate

Car rentals aren't as cheap as they once were. I used to be able to get a mini-van in Vegas for $15 a day. Now it's closer to $75, and that's if they're available at all. Alamo has a deal with a company called the International Student Identity Card which provides a crazy low rate, all the insurances, and a prepaid tank of gas. The only catch is that you must be a member of ISIC to get this rate. You know what it costs to become a member of ISIC? $20. That's money you'll easily earn back on your very first rental, even if you only factor in the tank of gas you don't have to replace before returning your car. 

Written by Steve Pratt