So the 4th of July celebration has come to an end but now that we are back in Colorado I thought I’d take a break and share the story of our recent trip to The Texas Hill Country, and how we saved and invested during the holidays.
As always, I have a few lessons learned I’d like to share but before we get started how about a quick summary of our trip:
So did we achieve our goals? … I may be biased but I truly believe we did. It required teamwork, flexibility, and collaboration but in the end, we all chipped in and had an amazing time. Family time is one of my top priorities, so being able to hang out without worrying about our usual routines was priceless. There were other signs that gave me the confidence we were on the right track for achieving our goals but I’ll let you be the judge.
The Initial Plan
I believe it was the first week of June when I got an email at work saying the company was giving all employees July 3rd as a day off. I was stoked with the idea of a long weekend which immediately morphed to planning on getting out of town.
It had been a while since I last visited my folks (Christmas 2016) so I realized a trip to Houston was deemed more than appropriate. I told my wife about the idea and we got to work.
As you know we used to live in The Woodlands, TX so we knew our way around (at least we thought) including major cities such as San Antonio and Austin. My wife was not overly excited about visiting these areas because activities in those cities (based on previous experiences) would be limited to doing things we did in the past. If you scroll back up you’ll see that one of my objectives was for the group to visit places we had never been before so I wasn’t ready to give up on The Texas Hill Country.
I shared my high-level plan with coworkers and they immediately jumped on it (without even asking). They started sending me ideas about places to visit and activities for the entire family. As I started to navigate through the links they provided, a feeling of embarrassment started to creep in. How in the world did we miss out on so many things we could have experienced while living in Texas?.
In the end, the list of activities more than filled the time we had. A little bit of prioritization came handy, but overall the plan was both doable and exciting because, for the most part, everything would be new to the majority of the group. Take a look at the map below showing our journey across the Texas Hill Country.
The schedule included the following activities:
- Friday: Pedernales Falls State Park – Sleeping in San Antonio
- Saturday: Sea World – Sleeping in San Antonio
- Sunday: Riverwalk, town of Gruene and Gristmill restaurant – Sleeping in New Braunfels
- Monday: Schlitterbahn – Sleeping in Austin
- Tuesday: Barton Springs Pool – Back to Houston
Flights and Hotels
Besides having already taken the class folks at Travel Miles 101 created, which by the way I totally recommend taking, I had a rough idea of what I needed to do. I love travel hacking and as such have been taking advantage of credit card rewards from Chase Saphire Reserve, Chase Saphire Preferred (I have switched to Chase Freedom Unlimited because of redundancy with Chase Saphire Reserve), and Chase Freedom. At one point I had over 150K points that I have used diligently in order to maximize value in utilization.
Chase ultimate rewards (CUR) is phenomenal in terms of the change rate (1.5X) you get for your points when booking through their site; however, I’ve never been lucky when it comes to flights. In my case, it was far a better deal to transfer points to Southwest Airlines who happens to be a preferred partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.
That’s exactly what I did and for the three of us, I used a total of 44,520 points plus $33.6 in taxes. I think that was a great deal considering it’s summertime, a holiday weekend and based on the fact that for most domestic flights you need 25,000 points/person.
Next on the agenda was the hotel. Instead of using miles I wanted to give my folks the opportunity to experience the benefits of sharing economies and booked a house through Airbnb in San Antonio. This place looked really nice, the rate was fair, had excellent reviews and the location was phenomenal.
For other stops on our road trip, I took advantage of the 1.5X point transfer through CUR and booked a big suite near New Braunfels for one night. The rate for the suite was $124.08/night (including taxes) but only required 8,272 points. The two smaller suites in Austin were each $90.16/night (including taxes) but only needed 6,010 points. Overall, I spent 20,292 points (or $202.92) instead of spending $304.4. Not bad per my humble standards.
In San Antonio, we had our eyes on Sea World and with the heat, we knew we couldn’t miss stopping by Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels. I purchased tickets in advance for the whole family and saved quite a few dollars.
At Sea World, regular tickets at the gate were $75 each and we paid $55/person. At Schlitterbahn tickets were $59.99 for adults and $46.99 for kids and seniors. We paid $50.99 and $38.99 respectively. Overall, we saved $100 at Sea World and $42 at Schlitterbahn. A total of $142 just because I bought them ahead of time.
We left Denver on Thursday with no issues and got to Houston late in the evening. The next day we left early to go to Pedernales Falls State Park located between Austin and San Antonio. The park was pretty empty and it seems like we had booked it for our private enjoyment. We went on a few hikes and eventually made it to the river. It was super hot but this place was unbelievable. Take a look at some of the pictures below.
My parents had been to San Antonio so many times and had no clue about this place. Even though they complained a little bit about the hike, they appeared to be overwhelmed and impressed. They said they were looking forward to coming back and bringing friends along.
We left the park and drove to San Antonio to the house booked through Airbnb. When we opened the door of the Casita Americana our jaws dropped. My folks, in particular, could not believe their eyes. This place was so different in terms of anything they had experienced before (mainly hotels and resorts).
The decoration and attention to details were phenomenal. We stayed at this place for two nights and until this day they are still talking about the house, how much they loved it and how they are thinking about coming back and staying there. Take a look at the Casita Americana and judge for yourself. Kudos to both Brett and Dave for being great hosts and for giving me permission to post these pictures on my blog.
The next day we went to Sea World. When trying to get into the park the lady said there was something wrong with my tickets. I couldn’t figure out what It was until she said: “your tickets are valid for tomorrow and not today”. You can imagine how bad I felt.
I walked to guest services and after spending some time talking and asking for very much needed understanding, I was able to get a refund and purchased new tickets with a 15% discount having to pay $36 for all 5 tickets. My initial savings dropped from ~$20/person to $13/person just because I made a stupid mistake picking the wrong date.
Once we were in the park we really had a great time watching the shows and getting on some of the rides – even my dad went on some of the water rides. Check it out.
Leaving San Antonio without making a stop by the Riverwalk is a NO NO. We didn’t spend too much time there; however, we did a little bit of walking around and had a beer along the way.
We dropped our luggage at the hotel I booked near New Braunfels and immediately drove to Gruene, TX. As we drove in, this little town came out of nowhere. So much history including Gruene Hall, antique stores, and the Gristmill restaurant where we had an amazing dinner watching the sunset by the Guadalupe River.
The water park was next in line. We got to Schlitterbahn and believe me when I say this … This is a huge water park and perfect for the hot weather in Texas. By the end of the day, the family was worn out but couldn’t stop talking about it, the rides, lazy rivers, wave pools, and so on.
After our stay in New Braunfels, we headed to Austin. The hotel was phenomenal and the suites were in pristine conditions. We spent the night and then woke up and were on our way to Barton Springs pool. Awesome, awesome, awesome. The whole family was in shock and again could not believe they had been to Austin without knowing the existence of this place.
We then went to Hula Hut and Mozarts right along the border of Lake Austin. Great views, great food and overall great vibes. After that, the road trip was coming to an end and we headed back to Houston.
In Houston, we had time to take care of a few things my parents needed my help with and by the time we were done it was pretty much time to get back to Colorado.
Before I share my overall spent I will say this … we planned this vacation and even though I don’t consider it a prime example of travel hacking I think we did Ok. Furthermore, we intentionally spent money on all these things but we SAVED ahead of time so we could spend it guilt-free.
As you can see from the graph below, the top 3 categories were: Tickets, Hotels (basically the Airbnb in San Antonio) and restaurants. The total spent for the family came at $1523.53.
So How much did we save?
I was able to save a total of $1046.4 on airline tickets and hotels by taking advantage of miles I was awarded by implementing travel hacking strategies. Paying for tickets to specific attractions weeks in advance also paid off.
To some, lots of planning might take away the excitement of a trip, but when it comes to saving money, airline tickets and hotels are a must. Other aspects of the trip can be pretty loose.
What about Investing?
I know you’re probably thinking about the stock market or some other type of investing vehicle; however, I invested TIME with my family and the RETURNS were over the charts. We spent quite a few hours on the road where we had very meaningful conversations that brought joy to my life. We talked about so many things including our faith, challenges in life, our future as a family and many others that made the whole trip a success by any metric you can think of.
My dad was impressed with my ability to book the flights and hotels not having to pay a dime. He asked me how I did that and I explained a few things about credit card rewards. I intentionally tried staying away from money conversations (read my previous post on emotional intelligence in FI and you’ll understand why) but was tempted to expand on that one due to its relevance to the planning of this trip. Aside from that, we laughed a LOT from jokes, stories from my childhood and just looking at all the crazy things our little guy did during the trip.
- Pay attention: I spent $36 at Sea World because I didn’t double check the date for my visit which I missed by one day.
- Plan activities that can be enjoyed by the group: the only tricky part of our trip was Pedernales Falls State Park. Even though we made it through, initially it was tough for my parents and wife.
- Don’t be fooled by pictures: making online reservations based on pretty pictures can be deceiving as was the case for the room we booked at the hotel in New Braunfels. Next time, I’ll pay close attention to reviews and/or focus on brands I’ve had great experiences with in the past.
- Share your plan so you can get suggestions from people: the conversation about my trip with coworkers (completely unplanned) sparked a lot of ideas and suggestions that essentially brought to life a new plan I had not envisioned. The suggestions I was given allowed us to visit places we had never seen before.
- It’s not all about the money: I know the guys at travel miles 101 or the madfientist who traveled the world for less than $1000 would corner me to say what the heck did you do? You spent way too much money on this trip!. But you know what … I spent money (which is no little money by any means) but I enjoyed the TIME with my family.
- Create memories: All the experiences we had during this trip were a perfect way to recharge and head back to work ready to go at it again. I would not change anything even if I had the opportunity to do it all over again (except for my screw up at sea world). I know there are other strategies that could have probably enabled me to save more money but I planned to spend the ~$1500 completely guilt-free so no hard feelings from my part.
This is it, that was our trip during the holidays. We saved a little bit of money using very simple travel hacking strategies but invested TIME in being together as a family. I’ve already collected my RETURNS but the DIVIDENDS (memories) will be there forever. This may sound corny to you but this is probably one of the trips I’ve enjoyed the most in my life. I needed time with my family and my family needed time with me and we did it. All objectives met and we are off to planning the next one.