Monday, March 9, 2015

Disneyland too expensive? Spain may be a better option.

Dearest Internet,

After an extended period of introspection and apathy, I write you from a small but lovely apartment in Seville, Andalucia, Spain.  If you don't want to read the details, skip to The Finagle, below.  Details on our trip will be added as I write them.

Day 1: Flight to Spain and first evening in Seville
Day 2: Sunday in Seville
Day 3: Monday at the Alcazar

{long-winded introduction}  Short story long, we canceled our trip to Japan that we had planned to take in 2013 because I was laid off from my job.  Even though the trip was "paid for", i.e. the $450 in taxes were paid for and I had used ff miles for everything, I've heard that Japan exacts a toll on one's walking-around money and that just wasn't flowing freely at the time.  As it happened, my new job started the very week we were to be in Japan so it wasn't realistic anyway.

The question was: was it worth spending $75 per person to cash in the one-way return tickets from Japan to reinstate 25,000 frequent flier points for each of the four of us to my account?  My job wasn't quite in hand but I was making some cash consulting, so we decided it was worth it, swallowed the bitter $300 pill and retained the points.  (Experts' note: I couldn't recover the outbound points because we had started that itinerary as an outbound flight from Boston 6 months earlier, back when AA allowed that.)

Fast forward to July 2014 and we are living in lovely San Diego and I have a new career in a new industry that suits me much better.  One of several reasons I was excited to move to San Diego is that a close friend of mine and his family spend a lot of time each summer not far from here with his in laws' family.  As it turns out, he announced to me that he would not be coming during the summer of 2014 because he was moving with his family to the southern coast of Spain for a year.  Naturally I viewed this as a challenge, not in the sense that I needed to go to spain to prove something (it wouldn't) but as a puzzle of frequent flier miles and kids' school vacations that warranted a solution.  Now that we live much closer to my parents and my mom is retired, I wouldn't normally choose to burn the extra points and subject kids to too many airports, jet lag and tapas.  But since his kids were there it seemed to be as good a time as any to introduce our own kids to the finer things in life.

One thing we've noticed since we moved to San Diego is that people often appear surprised when you say you are leaving town.  I believe this is because (1) living in San Diego is ridiculously expensive, so nobody has any money left to go anywhere; and (2) it is so beautiful just about any time of year that people here think that just about anywhere else is inferior and (3) residents cannot seem to cope when the temperature ventures outside the range of 68 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit.  We finesse issue (1) by doing almost everything with points acquired through judicious use of credit card bonuses, and to a lesser extent, by not caring what kind of cars we drive. Issue (2) has never been relevant to us, and in any case I can't stay in the same city for more than a couple months without going nuts, especially if work has been as crazy as it has been this past year.  San Diego is pretty hard to beat, but I need to get out of Dodge every now and then to clear my head, no matter where I live.

Also, people find it strange, or maybe it sounds like we have an extraordinary level of disposable income (we don't) when they learn that we would take our kids to Europe for just over a week plus a long weekend, in February.  Why not take a month during the summer?  The reality is that a trip like this would require many more points during the summer, out of pocket costs would be higher, everything is much more crowded, and it is not easy to finagle 4 tickets together.  As for the 10 day duration, that is the upper limit of the time I have for a vacation, and I make no apologies for the fact that we start missing the comforts of home at around 8 or 9 days.  If the stars align, we take 2 family vacations a year, one big one involving airplanes, and the other more modest and less of a hassle, such as driving to vegas and renting someone's timeshare for a week when they can't find anyone else to rent it and will let us use it for not much more than free.  We like to travel off peak to avoid crowds and high prices and don't really mind weather as long as it isn't pouring rain, so the best fit is to take the big trip during the kids' February or spring breaks, and getting scorched in Vegas in the middle of August, which can be surprisingly enjoyable.  {/long winded introduction}

So in July 2014 we cashed in 160,000 American Airlines points to book the four of us on a round trip from San Diego to Andalucia, the southernmost region of Spain, returning a week later, in coach of course.  When I originally booked it, the itinerary was the stuff of legend:


Alaska airlines: San Diego > Portland > Chicago, overnighting in Chicago
AirBerlin: Chicago > Dusseldorf > Mallorca > Sevilla


AirBerlin: Malaga > Berlin (overnighting) > New York JFK
American: New York JFK > San Diego

Total per person: 40,000 points + $102.40 in taxes, using AA's off-peak points rate to Europe.  I believe I avoided about $500 in fees and taxes by not routing through Madrid, although the AA phone charge has since been waived for flights on Iberia which cannot be booked on the AA web site.

As luck would have it, I got an email a couple months later stating that we were rerouted San Diego > Dallas > Madrid > Sevilla, requiring only 3 segments instead of 5.  Apparently this was because AirBerlin changed the Chicago-Dusseldorf routing to summer only, so that flight was canceled.

After exchanging messages with my friend Ken in Spain, we decided we would stay 4 nights in Sevilla, 1 night in Cordoba, 1 night somewhere between Cordoba and Granada, and 2 nights in Granada.  They would drive up from their town, Huelva (which he said can be seen in a day or less) for the weekend to meet us in Sevilla, and then they would meet us the following weekend in Granada.

Once the hard part had been done, the rest is easy, and is really part of the fun for a junky such as yours truly.  One thing we decided early was that we were not going to stay in hotels in Europe, which in my experience are uniformly bad and small.  Also most of them don't let you reserve more than 3 people in a room.  I had signed up for an airbnb account and never purchased anything (they don't take points) and in October I was offered a promo that gave me 20% off my first reservation.  That got me off the fence to book 4 nights at the comfortable apartment where I am writing at this very moment, next to the University of Seville.

One of the logistics is ground transportation.  With four of us, I had contemplated renting a car in Sevilla and dropping it off in Malaga.  But it looked like it would be cheaper to do it in parts.  The weekly rental was going to be $330 for an economy car.  Instead we will rent a car for a week on our last day in Sevilla at the train station, to return to  Malaga airport, for 150 euros, for a "compact" car.  We will have to pay for parking in Granada with either option.  Add the $30 cab fare from Sevilla airport to our apartment and I estimate we saved $150.  Not a huge amount, but something, and I didn't really want a car in Sevilla anyway.

As it turns out, the weather here in Seville is the mediterranean climate we were promised.  It's cloudy and not quite as nice as San Diego this time of year but today I had to take off my jacket and carry it for most of the afternoon because I was too warm to wear it.

The Finagle

You can spend $5,000, maybe more, maybe less,  to buy 4 coach tickets for your family, or you can use 160,000 frequent flier miles (20,000 miles x 2 directions x 4 people), plus taxes (about $100 per person in our case) and another $190 or so in annual credit card fees, if you are careful, to fly 4 people off-peak in coach on American Airlines and its partners, which basically is September through April.  The $600 in fees is about the same as 4 Southern California resident park-hopper passes for 2 days at Disneyland/California Adventure.  Go during peak season (i.e. summer) and it will cost you 240,000 miles.
As of this writing, the American Airlines award chart is here.  If you look closely, you will also see that you can all go to Peru (South America zone 1) for 17,500 miles per person each way, plus taxes, or Japan or Korea (Asia zone 1) for 25,000 miles each way, plus taxes.

The cards we got to get the 160,000 miles are no longer offered, but as of spring 2015, the offerings are just as good or better.

Two adults with solid (>740 I am led to understand) credit scores can each apply for the Barclays US Airways (merging with American ) card and the new Citi American Airlines card.  These are both Mastercards.  For the US Airways, the offer for which may end any day now, you need to use the card for at least one purchase and pay an annual fee of $89 to get the bonus of 50,000 miles.  For the Citicard, you need to charge $3,000 in purchases (regular household expenses, restaurants, shopping, internet, phone service, and things like utilities payments are also fine if your utility accepts credit cards) within 3 months of receiving the card to get its bonus of 50,000 miles.  If you need a total of 300,000 miles, say, to go during the summer or if you need more tickets, you can also apply for the CitiBusiness version of the card, if you have or "plan to have" a business - but your household income is used to qualify for the card.  If you do, be sure to stagger the applications so that you can meet all of your spending thresholds with 3 months of each application.  In any case, you can always get additional cards for spouses and other family members to help meet those thresholds more quickly, and it should not affect their credit scores or reports.  

I don't have nearly enough hits to this blog or the vigilance to become a marketing affiliate, so I will refer you to the two blogs I find most useful, either MileValue or Million Mile Secrets, to apply for these cards.  They probably get some kind of a payment if you get a card through their link.  There is some chance I may get a referral link for the US airways card in the future, in which case I will update this page.

Once you have the cards, you can book on the AA website or by calling AA.  British airways and Iberia usually have lots of availability because they add ridiculous "fuel surcharges" which pretty much wipe out the value of frequent flier miles.  So on the booking engine, unselect British Airways so that you can see what is available on AA and its partner, AirBerlin, on which you only pay taxes.   If you can't find what you are looking for, you can call AA to get access to a few more airline partners, namely Air Tahiti Nui which has a nonstop from Los Angeles to Paris, but AA phone agents vary in training and experience and it can take a long time on the phone and a lot of trial and error, or just some good luck, to get what you want.   There aren't nearly as many options on AA's partners to get to Europe as there are for United's partners, but it is much easier to get the miles you need on AA to get an entire family to Europe.


The information on this website is due to my own research and experience, but I do not claim to be an expert and accept no liability for errors or misrepresentation.  Please do your own research on the blogs linked above, this Reddit thread, the credit card disclosures, etc, and determine whether this approach will work for you and whether you can do it responsibly.

As always, getting frequent flier points through credit card bonuses only is worthwhile if you pay your balances in full on time every month, since the interest and fees quickly overwhelm the value of airplane tickets.  Of course, the credit card issuing companies surely wish you would carry balances, accrue interest, and incur fees, since those are big sources of income (along with swipe fees, which are paid by the merchant you purchase from).  Each card application will cause your credit score to decrease a little bit; I've read between 3 and 15 points.  More importantly, in my experience, many applications for credit cards in a year will result in denials simply for multiple credit hits, without regard to your actual credit score.  This happened to me once when I applied for 3 or 4 cards from Citibank within a year.  Other bloggers seem to think that you shouldn't apply for credit cards if you expect to apply for a mortgage in the next few years; however,  I personally have applied for several credit cards and a few months later successfully applied for mortgages at excellent interest rates, so I don't necessarily agree with this.  My understanding is that mortgage lenders expect you to shop around when applying for a mortgage, so they aren't alarmed by multiple credit hits before a mortgage application.  Rather, they are primarily concerned with your actual credit score.

However, my wife, a real estate agent, has seen multiple instances in which people have applied for credit (e.g. for appliances) in the middle of an escrow period for the purchase of a home, where the credit application pushed the borrower outside Fannie Mae lending limits, so ultimately they were not funded for the house.  Thus they were left with beautiful stainless steel appliances but no kitchen to install them in.  This could easily happen if you apply for a credit card as well.  For this reason we both suggest never beginning an application for additional credit for a credit card, appliances, car, or anything else, if you are in an escrow period for a loan purchase or are applying to refinance your home.  This is especially the case if you are borrowing an amount anywhere near the limit of what your lender says you are qualified for.  Only after the loan funds and you are on record as owner (if applicable), is it safe to begin applying for a credit card.  If you want to be extra cautious, wait a few more months; however, a new home often means lots of spending that can help you meet multiple bonus spending thresholds, so you may not want to waste that consumertunity.


  1. Very disappointed that I wasn't invited to come in your suitcase. Love, love, love all the details and nuances and nitty-gritty in this! Miss y'all.

  2. Wow, absolutely fantastic blog. I am very glad to have such useful information.



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