Adventures in Travel Hacking and a FIRE Update

Welcome to another update from the PIE family as we navigate hectic dual careers, raising two energetic boys, vacationing, and attempting to leave enough time for some periodic blogging.

This all-encompassing update will take you on a travel hacking journey from Canada to Wyoming with a brief preview of Mexico. Not content with that, you’ll also get a quick FIRE update. Ready for the long(ish) haul? Read on!

We have written before about the importance of awesome vacations, even as we pursue FIRE. Mrs. PIE wrote a beginner’s guide to travel hacking here and we also described how much we saved in 2016 through travel hacking to indulge in our highly addictive skiing habit. 

So, here are a few tales on our adventures in travel hacking over the past few months.

6 Free Nights for the Price of 4 Free Nights

In early 2016 our first official Travel Hacking credit card application was the Chase Fairmont card. (Unfortunately the card is no longer available).  The biggest perk of the card was that we BOTH received 2 free nights at ANY Fairmont hotel in the world. Fairmont has an amazing collection of fine hotels, particularly north of the border in Canada.  For example,

Fairmont Lake Louise

and

Fairmont Whistler

Although we have never stayed at either of these majestic properties, we have skied at both Whistler and Lake Louise. You’ll hear more about Whistler later in the post. We had our sights set on Chateau Frontenac in one of our favorite Canadian cities, Quebec City.

A few details about the reservation process: We were easily able to combine our free nights into one reservation thanks to the wonderful customer service at Fairmont Presidents Club. In fact we hadn’t even earned the free nights before Mrs. PIE made the reservation! The Chase Fairmont card also granted us Premier Presidents Club membership which provides a free suite upgrade and $50 EACH in dining certificates. We were able to take advantage of all of these add-ons for our reservation. Sweet or should I say ” suite”…!?

One of the big advantages of vacationing in Quebec City is the proximity from our mountain home in New Hampshire. We had spent Christmas in NH and after a relaxing Boxing Day, we headed off on the morning of Dec 27 by car – the drive to Quebec city is an easy 5 hours door-to-door. It’s worth pointing out that it is not so easy if you are driving in the teeth of a major snow-storm – add another 2-3 hours for that white-knuckle ride.

The magic of Quebec City, for us at least, are the snow lined cobbled streets of the Old City, the dizzying array of wonderful restaurants and the French charm that is Chateau Frontenac. If you ever get the chance to wander the snowy cobbled streets in late December and peek in the windows of quaint old shops, you can’t help but feel festive.  It’s truly a magical place for couples, families, young and old alike. We love it, and we should know. We have visited the city six times over the last fifteen years.

Some of the other local attractions that suit our lifestyle are the nearby ski mountains – Mont Sainte Anne and Le Massif. We skied one day at Mt St Anne and had one awesome powder day (14 inches dumping) at Le Massif.

“This is all great, but please get on with the six free nights story”, I hear you cry…..

After a hard day of skiing, we typically eat (drink) well and are spent by about 9pm. The first night at the hotel, we all were super-tired and by about 9.30pm, the lights had gone out and four PIE’s were all peacefully asleep.

That was until we were rudely awakened around midnight by a horrendous rattling sound above the main bedroom. Mr. PIE was jolted from his slumber, leapt out of bed and assumed the fetal position, preparing for the bedroom roof to cave in. Mrs. PIE would add that a few expletives were also heard coming from my mouth but that is minor detail you don’t need to hear about.

Upon realizing that it was not noise from a rowdy party and it had to be structural in nature, a swift call was made by Mr. PIE to the front desk, explaining the situation. Moments after the phone was put down a night shift service technician was dispatched to our room. In his best Quebecois voice upon assessing the situation, he muttered “comme un train bruyant” (or something like that). Translate as “like a noisy train”. We couldn’t have agreed more!

The family PIE were quickly escorted to another family size room and were told the situation would be dealt with before morning.  After a less than ideal night sleep, we skied the next day. Upon returning to the hotel, were informed that the noise was indeed structural and the issue had been addressed.  True, it seemed to be fixed, as we all slept soundly in preparation for the next day at the local tubing hill.

When we say tubing, we really mean tubing on steroids! Valcartier Village Vacances, about 20 minutes North of Quebec City is the home to the largest winter playground in America – housing 35 slides for tubes and rafts. A few pics here to give you a flavor of the fun to be had. They have even added a huge indoor water park which we managed to take advantage of in the same exhausting day. We’d challenge any of you to spend a day there and not howl with delight all day long. It is that good!!


With our rinse, repeat mantra of tons of snow fun, eat / drink and sleep well, we headed to our suite that night and crashed…..yep, you know what is around the corner…..we were awakened by the horrendous noise again! Mr. PIE took the train analogy to heart, blew off some proverbial steam and based upon his vocal distaste of the whole situation, the family PIE were quickly escorted yet again to another chamber in the Chateau by the apologetic staff. Not before Mr. PIE used his best French to convey to the front desk “Je dois parler demain au manager en charge” – translated as “I must speak tomorrow to the manager in charge”.  The next morning Mr. PIE conducted a furious negotiation session with the apologetic manger on duty and scored the following:

  • Upgrade to a Presidential suite for our final night, with a promise of no more noise. You should have seen the room we were in……OMG, it was spectacular.
  • A complementary two nights for our “inconvenience”, with a promise that the nights could be used at any Fairmont hotel world-wide, in a family size suite. Here’s the math: 6 free nights for the price of four!

Although we were quite inconvenienced, we were impressed by the swiftness of hotel staff to get us to a new room each night. In addition, the on-duty manager at Fairmont Chateau, Jean, was very courteous, highly apologetic and responsive as he helped resolve the situation and secure 2 complementary nights for us in July 2017 in the Mexican Maya Riviera.

2017 Summer Vacation – More Hacking…

We may have mentioned previously that a quirk of the family PIE is to plan our next vacation before we complete the current one. So, on the journey home from Quebec City, a plan was hatched to spend a week during the summer in the warmth of the Mexican Maya Riviera. Since our winter vacations are spent being super active, we thought a super-relaxing beach vacation would do the trick to unwind from the rigors of work, long commutes and all the stress that goes with being two busy parents.

Where are we going?

How are we paying for the stay?

We are not – really.

  • 2 x Hyatt Visa cards (Mr. and Mrs. PIE) equals 2 + 2 free nights at any Hyatt hotel worldwide. We are using our 4 free nights at the all-inclusive Ziva resort near Cancun and paying for one extra night on our own dime
  • 2 complementary nights (see above) at the luxury resort, Fairmont Mayakoba. We also have $100 in Fairmont dining certificates that we will apply towards the family dinner on one of the nights

Hyatt Ziva

Fairmont Mayakoba

We are paying for four round-trip air tickets from Boston to Cancun. At this time of year, flights award availability is very limited and involves 1-2 stops and/or very inconvenient dates. We managed to secure 3x miles (more miles, yay!!) on the cost of the tickets by paying for them with our American Airlines Advantage card . We’ll take that as a win.

2017 Winter Vacation

We blogged before about our planned trip to Jackson Hole. It came, it went, it was friggin’ awesome! We spent the whole week skiing in deep powder in one of the many storm cycles that have pounded Jackson all winter long. As we described  previously, we saved thousands of $$’s on this trip due to travel hacking, including the use of 200,000 United miles for four round-trip tickets.

2018 Winter Vacation Planning – Whistler, British Columbia

Did we ever mention we are Type A planners? Not content with planning our summer trip, we are looking ahead to February 2018. Traditionally, we alternate by going out West or spending a week in NH. Next year is supposed to NH. But since it will be our last vacation before we pull the plug in July 2018, we are heading out west to ski the Canadian Rockies. Whistler-Blackcomb has some mighty fine terrain for the intermediate/advanced skier:

  • The award availability popped in just at the right time and we secured 4 return tickets (BOS-YVR) using 200K American Airmiles – helped by snagging 50K AA miles by transferring some funds from Vanguard to Fidelity (see below)
  • 7 free nights at the Westin Whistler Resort and Spa using 72,000 SPG points. We also plan to spend an extra day skiing and have reserved a night in Vancouver at the Sheraton Vancouver airport with 7,000 SPG points
  • Lift tickets – the much lower price of lift tickets in Canada (about half the price of our favorite ski destination Jackson Hole!) and the Canadian dollar advantage are all in our favor
  • Our expenses will be transportation (coach) between Vancouver and Whistler, food, beverages and other entertainment we choose such as this fantastic looking Zipline. We won’t need a rental car (more money in our pocket) since there is everything you need, and more, at Whistler

Quick Snapshot of our Miles and Points Balances

We are not in the million mile club but we are happy with our stash and expect to see it grow further as we cycle through more cards. As Mr. PIE dreams in tables, here is a table with a summary of our balances across various cards.

Our latest mileage hack has taken us into new territory.  We found, (thanks to Justin at Root of Good) that funding a Fidelity brokerage account with $100,000 will earn 50,000 in airline miles with Delta, United or American. We happily opened a Fidelity account and with a few clicks of the mouse $100,000 in funds / cash was transferred to Fidelity, and 50K AA miles were deposited in our American account 10 days later. No buy/sell and tax implications, just a simple transfer with no costs. We plan to move the funds back to Vanguard in a year and hopefully repeat the whole exercise. Gotta love travel hacking!

FIRE Update

Our plans have not changed. The plan to FIRE in July, 2018 is very much on track. Our high savings rate continues unabated. This was bolstered in February by Mr. PIE receiving his 2016 performance bonus and exercising some restricted stock awards:

  • Bonus = 44% of annual salary (gross)
  • Stock exercise = 32% of annual salary

Yeah, Mr. PIE was floored again with the bonus and every penny of it and the stock exercise was squirreled away to Vanguard and Fidelity. The ability to save large amounts of money in the peak years of earning power along with favorable market tail-winds has powered our nest-egg to new highs.

Wrap-up

It has been some time since we last posted but we hope that you like this little update. Work goes on, our savings goes on but our fun travel plans keeps us sane in an otherwise chaotic lifestyle.

What keeps y’all sane in your journey towards FIRE? Any travel plans on the horizon? Please share what’s going on in the comments section below.

31 comments

  1. Hello there PIE’s! Thanks for the update! It’s great to read about all of your travel adventures. We aren’t much into skiing, but we could totally do the snow tubing for a day! We need to check that out! Glad to hear all is well with you and that your FIRE date is on track. You are doing an amazing job of enjoying your time while you are still working too! Making tons of memories for your family!

    1. Hey Vicki! Thanks for stopping by despite our recent lack of posts! The tubing at Valcartier really is something. In fact now we have been there, the unfortunate side effect is that everywhere else seems so tame!
      We’ve always loved to plan travel and vacations and travel hacking adds another thrill to the process!

  2. We have an upcoming trip to Playa Del Carmen, just down the road from Riviera Maya. We’re working the credit card points in the banckground as my goal this year is 0 financial impact from travel.

    1. Hi there and thanks for swinging by our quiet blog! That’s an impressive goal to have 0 financial impact from travel. We certainly haven’t managed that, but I’ve always got a couple of fixed value cards up my sleeve to defray those additional costs like transfers and baggage! Good luck with the hacking!

  3. That looks like an amazing trip to Quebec and such an awesome way to do it! Super jealous of what you’ve accumulated so far.

    I’ve just started travel hacking myself and am still learning the ropes, but starting to figure it out. Sitting on about 60k ultimate rewards points and 40k SPG points. Now that me and my wife are married, we should be able to open up cards for her as well. Now just trying to figure out how to navigate the 5/24 stuff and make sure we’re doing it all right.

    1. Well I’m jealous now as we are so far beyond 5/24 it’s not funny!We missed out on some great Chase cards when they instituted that. Keep hitting up those SPG points, they are very flexible. Don’t forget that you can get them through both personal and business Amex SPG cards as well as personal and business Chase Marriott cards. For two people that could be a big haul!

  4. Thanks for sharing! Beautiful pictures! But it looks like your FIRE financial picture is also looking really good. I hope all goes well on the home stretch to RE and you’ll have more time again for blogging soon!
    Cheers!

    1. Hi ERN,

      Good to hear from you. We have some ideas to get a few posts going. Work demands will dictate the amount of free time we have. We forgot how much we enjoy this stuff and wish we had more bandwidth. The plan is indeed full steam ahead and it’s getting supe real as we approach one year out. Yikes!

      PS- we have been enjoying your stuff immensely! 😁

      Cheers,
      Dr. PIE

  5. What great times with the fam! So looking forward to all those fun family vacations myself but right now we’re mostly sitting tight with our two boys (3 year old and newborn). Thanks for the FIRE update!

    1. Oh, we remember those days fondly. When they are vey young, it is hard. Still, if you can get them traveling when they are young, they will get used to it so quickly. And so will you. Our boys now 10 and 8 travel like seasoned veterans. Well worth the investment to get kids acquainted with travel early. All the best to you and family!

  6. Nice update and those trips sounds pretty “suite”, lol. I couldn’t resist. 🙂 We’ve got to start looking into travel hacking, because we haven’t even dabbled a toe into that water yet.

    That’s great that your FIRE timing is still on track. Our FIRE timing has bounced around a lot and is about to bounce some more. Instead of building the lakehouse and moving full time into it in 2019, we’re going to go full steam ahead and build it ASAP and use it as a vacation house until we move there full time. Now that might be 2021 since we both really like our jobs and with Mrs. SSC’s teaching schedule slowing down our family dynamic so much it’s been amazing for family life.

    We mays till pull the plug earlier than that, and then we’ll have everything ready to go, but for now, that’s our current plan. Next week, it may be different, lol.

    1. I can see from this comment and binge reading a few of your recent posts that your plan is evolving. That is actually quite natural. Happy that you are finding the path that works for your family. Sounds like Mrs SSC job is a plus on so many levels for the whole family.

      Funny that we bought our vacation home nearly four years ago to the day. Little did we we know it was going to be our FIRE home. We have actually been talking a lot about what we would do if we did not FIRE and the options are not pleasant, I can tell you!!

      All he best to the family SSC. Keep on evolving on…!

    1. Hello Gwen.

      Mrs. PIE was only complaining last night about the low temperatures here in MA. LOL, it is going to be 80-90 degrees over the next two days.
      Skiing keeps us young, sane and also with a lighter bank account…..😉

      I am rather fortunate to have a job that rewards me so well. Can’t complain on the renumeration front. That plays off against the craziness and stress involved so it’s always a balance to be honest.

      Thanks for swinging by!

  7. Great to hear that the PIEs are having such fun and are almost living the FIRE life as much as you could want to, even before FIRE 🙂

    You are truly showing the rest of us how it’s done with travel hacking, very nice job! And the bonus too, hugely well done.

    Good luck over the next year, have a great life, you definitely deserve it.

    Mr DDU

    1. Tristan,

      Great to hear from you. And I swung over to your blog and got the update on your journey with the future new addition. Delighted to see that things are progressing well. 😁😁

      Mrs PIE sends her hugs and best wishes and was highly amused to see your wife’s desire for soup. She had the same craving for canned tomato soup.

      Hope the next months continue to move along smoothly for y’all down under

      All the best!

    1. Hi there,

      Yes, we will have to post after Mexico and tell y’all about our lazy fun in the sun. The plan is to not do very much that week. Chill out, pool, cold beer, nap, repeat…..it’s gonna be a real bummer!!

  8. Canada in the winter. Mexico in the summer.

    Part of me want to say “You’re doing it wrong,” but Quebec looks like a beautiful and fun place to visit (and you can’t beat that price) any time of year. We may have to expand our Great American RV road trip to a Great North American RV road trip.

    Glad to see you’re still living the dream and on track for FIRE next summer!
    -PoF

    1. Doc, great to hear from you.

      Our respective parents have told us we never do things normal. Like vacations and our plans to retire early and Mrs. PiE’s choice of husband…..

      I think you would love the dramatic landscape of British Columbia and the quaint, old town aspect of Quebec City. Beer is not so bad up there either. What’s not to like?

  9. Wow, you guys are nailing it with the freebies courtesy of those points. Down-under it feels like you have to spend a million bucks to be eligible for just the steak knives on our local loyalty programs. I guess that’s competition for you.

    Only 13 and a half months to go before you pull the big lever, punch the big red knob, or whatever you want to call it to flush those full-time jobs down the what’sit. Trust me, it’ll fly by and we’ll be here waiting for every update as the day gets closer.

    1. Thank you Martin. That analogy with the steak knives is hilarious. Sorry you can’t take full advantage of the points and miles system the way we can. But you do have many other advantages in your part of the world.

      Yep, it is starting to fee very real for us right now. It’s really happening……

  10. Great to hear that unique Mr. PIE voice weaving stories in a way only he can do. Congratulations on that amazing bonus and awesome travel deals. We may have to add Quebec City to our bucket list. It looks quite beautiful.

    I’m also happy to hear you’re right on target for FIRE. You’ll be like a firecracker shooting around the globe with your family.

    On a somber note, I neglected to acknowledge your beloved cat Charlie in my comment on your last post. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    1. Thank you for stoping by Mrs Groovy and your kind words. Any more of that stuff and I’ll be thinking I am some kind of literary genius. LOL.

      It’s been some time since we said cheerio to Charlie but we think about her often.

      I hope you and Mr Groovy are finding your way through the early days of FIRE and having fun with it.

      Say hello to the other half and tell him I’ll be stopping by the blog some time soon. Best to give him ample warning and prepare a stiff drink in advance……

  11. So excited to see the update – sounds like your whole family is having a great time! It’s awesome to see that you’re still on-track with your FIRE plans – congrats on the great progress!

    1. Thank you so much Chris. We are trying hard to live the life now instead of waiting for tomorrow. But applying enough balance to save hard for the fun tomorrow!

      Hope things are going well for you and family on your journey.

  12. That was really great to look at this post. All the pictures you posted were really mesmerizing. It shows, how wholeheartedly you and your family enjoying the trip. The scenery with Fairmont Lake Louise and Whistler are really awesome. Thanks for sharing your experience in the form of images. 🙂

  13. What a bummer that Chase Fairmont card is no longer available. But I had no idea about Fidelity and the AA bonus miles! Gotta give that a try.

    Congrats on the bonus and keeping on track with FIRE, looking forward to more updates.

    1. The Fidelity AA bonus is no longer available. But keep an eye out for other variants coming. They seem to run promotions now and then. Well worth it to get a free flight just to shuffle money. Justin at Root of Good blog alerted us to the initial offer.

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