SXSW Music 2015: book reward nights now!

(Source: SXSW)

(Source: SXSW)

I just booked our reward nights at Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake for the music portion of SXSW (March 17 – 22, 2015). Badges go on sale in the next week or so, if the schedule stays the same as previous years. Once that happens, there will be nothing left. So if you want to save some serious bucks and avoid couch surfing, this is your chance!

Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake (20 North Ih-35) has reward nights available for the entire music portion of the festival at this time.  We really liked using this hotel as a home base last year, because it’s just on the edge of the craziness of downtown but steps away from the Rainey Street venues and awesome food trucks.  Reward nights are a reasonable 25,000 IHG reward points per night (or 15,000 + $70/night).  Don’t have enough points?  You can always do the (not so) secret workaround.

If don’t mind a short hike, Hampton Inn & Suites Austin @ The University/Capitol (1701 Lavaca Street) also has rooms available for the entire conference/festival at 50,000 HHonors points per night.  This is about the same distance from the action as the Holiday Inn, just in the opposite direction and a up a slight incline from Sixth Street.

The rest of the hotels at the edge of downtown are already sold out of award nights, as many didn’t offer them in the first place because of demand. That being said, there are many other hotels available outside downtown on various shuttle routes. I would still book as soon as possible if you have the points available.

I must say, if you can score a hotel through SXSW Housing right when badges go on sale, they do offer decent rates.  Last year I was able to grab the Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake and I think it was about $210/night.  I ended up cancelling because I decided to use my pre-booked award nights to save extra money.

Good luck, and see you in Austin!

SXSW Day 4: BADBADNOTGOOD, Sir Sly, Deap Vally

Something was really off for us today, like we just couldn’t get our crap together.  We were on a mission to find the party where Royal Blood was playing, but confused our days and ended up at the right venue a day early.  The good news is that the Cedar Street bar was pretty chill and we got some time to regroup while listening to the jazz/funk fusion stylings of BADBADNOTGOOD.  Really fresh sound.

We couldn’t decide whether to head to the chaos of one the larger parties, or find a relaxed place to listen to a few good bands.  I’m not going to lie, I’m starting to get tired.  So we decided to check out the Cherrytree Records line up at Trinity Hall.  What a treat!

Sitting out on the verandah, we could people watch over Sixth Street and listen to the first few bands.  We were really there for two artists: Sir Sly and Deap Vally.  Having seen Deap Vally before, we knew we were in for a great show and they sure did deliver.  Deap Vally really rocks at full volume, and the small venue really didn’t do their heavy guitar and drum sound justice.  These girls need a more cavernous, open venue to really display their craft.  Nonetheless, they really put on a show and it was fun to see them up close and personal.

My big surprise of the night was Sir Sly, which blew me away.  I walked into the gig knowing only the song Gold, which I really love.  From that one song I was expecting a kind of mellow set, but they really exuded energy and got everyone dancing.  I would say of their set, Gold was one of the less exciting tunes (which shows how many excellent songs they have).  The crowd had a blast, and I danced so much I only got a few photos.

So we’re still on a mission to see Royal Blood.  We have one last chance, so I’m ending this quickly.  Gotta get there early to see if we can luck out this time.  Crossing our fingers.

Photos from Day 4:

Sir Sly

Sir Sly

Sir Sly

Sir Sly

Deap Vally

Deap Vally

11 free music festivals (I know of)

It seems like the new way to attract people to your blog is to put a number in your title.  But it’s just so, well, hilarious that one person is going to somehow distill all knowledge on a subject to a definitive numerical list, post it on BuzzFeed, and become a guru. I’m not claiming to know every free music festival out there, but what I do offer you are the best 11 free musical festivals I know of around the world. I guess, alternatively, I could also create a “Which free music festival are you?” quiz and post it on Facebook.

Bogota knows how to throw a party.  (Source: Santiago Trujillo)

Bogota knows how to throw a party. (Source: Santiago Trujillo)

1. Rock Al Parque, Bogota, Colombia (usually first weekend in July)

We’re going to star off here with a bang, as this isn’t a laid-back jazz or blues festival.  This is a huge park teeming with concertgoers and they’re here for rock, ska, hardcore, metal and more genres involving fist-pumping.  Rock Al Parque is one of South America’s largest rock concerts, and it’s completely gratis.  With headliners from South America, as well as international icons (like the Dead Kennedys), it’s no wonder over 400,000 people come to soak in the craziness.

2. Chicago Blues Festival, Chicago, IL, USA (June 13 – 15, 2014)

Grant Park isn’t home to just Lollapalooza.  And better yet, the Chicago Blues Festival won’t set you back several hundred a person.  Announced musicians for 2014 include Bettye LaVette, Aaron Neville, and Dr. John.

3.  Przystanek Woodstock (aka Woodstock Poland), Kostrzyn nad Odrą, Poland (early August)

The sprawling Woodstock festival. (Source: http://woodstockfestival.pl)

The sprawling Woodstock festival. (Source: http://woodstockfestival.pl)

Modeled after the peace-loving rock festival that started it all, Woodstock Poland lines up international fan favorites for free.  Usually there is a rock theme, but the festival has many eclectic offerings. As a ticket-free festival, attendance varies so you never know what to expect (450k to 700k people have been seen in recent years).  And where is Kostrzyn nad Odrą? About 1.5 hours east of Berlin, in fact as close as you can get to Berlin without leaving Poland.

4. iTunes Festival, London, UK (generally the month of September)

What hasn’t Apple conquered?  Not only has iTunes created a music festival, but it has also completely re-imagined what a music festival should be.  This festival is completely unique, as you don’t just show up at a specific time or place and experience music.  You download an app.  You select the bands you are interested in seeing, and then you are entered into a draw.  If your name gets drawn, you go for free.  If your name isn’t drawn, you can still download the concert on iTunes later ($4.99 to $9.99 typically).  It’s really quite genius.  And if you’re lucky, you could see some of the world’s hottest artists for free.

5. Monmouth Festival, Monmouth, UK (July 25 – August 2, 2014)

Wales puts on quite a party starting in late July, with five different venues surrounding the town of Monmouth.  The free music fest runs for eight days., and attendees are encouraged to eat, drink, and have a fun time.  The festival attracts the best of UK artists, with genres ranging from classical to punk, and just about anything in between.

6.  Virgin Mobile FreeFest, Columbia, MD, USA (September)

Richard Branson kicks off the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, a music festival that gives back. (Source: http://daily-beat.com)

Richard Branson kicks off the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, a music festival that gives back. (Source: http://daily-beat.com)

It may be short, but it’s also sweet.  For one day each September, Virgin Mobile invades Maryland and stages a mind-blowing concert.  There are tickets involved, and there is a donation of at least $10 expected (going toward youth homelessness charities) or you can also volunteer your time if you don’t have the money.  Over a period of four years, the festival has donated about a million bucks in money and volunteer time.  Entertaining and inspiring.

7. Sound of Music Festival, Burlington, ON, Canada (June 7, 12-15, 2014)

Canada puts the cream of its musical crop on display each June in Burlington, Ontario.  Covering five days over two weekends, the festival sports Canadian favorites like 54-50, illScarlet, USS, and Big Wreck (to name a few).  Line-ups are announced in May each year.  The festival is also family friendly, and includes a parade, carnival and autograph sessions with kid-friendly stars.  A good way to introduce your brood to live music.

8. St. Kilda Festival, Melbourne, Australia (Early February)

While we’re on the subject of homegrown music showcases, the Australians are not to be outdone.  While the St. Kilda Festival is not solely a music festival, it is the largest free music showcase in Australia, so I’m including it.  St. Kilda runs in the height of the summer, well the Southern Hemisphere summer, at the beginning of February each year.  While music is offered each day during the eight-day festival, the weekend really swings into a typical music festival feel.  The grounds are truly fantastic, stretching along the beach, offering a relaxed vibe and a lovely view.

9. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco, CA, USA (October 3 – 5, 2014)

Patti Smith at the HSBF in Golden Gate Park. (Source: sfgate.com)

Patti Smith at the HSBF in Golden Gate Park. (Source: sfgate.com)

Golden Gate Park is a world-class urban park.  So it is no surprise that it hosts a world-class free festival like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  As you can guess, bluegrass is one of the many offerings at this huge six-stage venue.  2013’s festival saw the likes of Chris Isaak, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, G. Love & Special Sauce, and Father John Misty (to name but a few of the acts).

10. Baybeats, Singapore, Singapore (June 27 – 29, 2014)

Singapore is one of the densest cities in the world (population, not intelligence), and with that kind of populace, you’re going to brew a music scene.  Baybeats takes advantage of the raw talent coming out of this cosmopolitan city by showcasing the best Singapore has to offer.  But it gives back, too.  The festival holds open auditions, judged by hand-picked mentors a la The Voice,  thereby providing real life experience and feedback to burgeoning musicians.  And that’s not all… the Baybeats Budding initiatives also mentors in the other fields related to festivals, including music journalism, gig photography, video arts and more.

11. French Quarter Music Festival, New Orleans, LA, USA (April 10 – 13, 2014)

Jackson Square transformed into concert venue. (Source: Zack Smith)

Jackson Square transformed into concert venue. (Source: Zack Smith)

In the French Quarter, every night is a live music night, but for three days in April, that musical party takes to the street (and parks and squares) to become the largest free music festival in the United States.  This is New Orleans, so the jazz, zydeco and blues artists are top notch.  But many other genres are also well-represented for eclectic tastes.

In addition to the dedicated music festivals listed above, also be sure to check out some of the larger, expensive festivals, as they often have free kick-off parties or other showcases for locals.  A great example are the free stage performances in Montreal during the Montreal Jazz Festival or the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival.  Or for large music festivals, try the free Thursday night kick off at the Hangout Festival in Ocean Shores.

Whatever the budget, there’s great music out there.  So make some plans to get out and enjoy your local offerings this year.

Using points for free concerts, festivals and elite experiences

The credit card industry has been changing, and in my eyes it’s for the better.  Certain elite credit cards from the days of old, like American Express and Diner’s Club, provided unique experiences for their members pretty much from day one.  In a way, they made you feel special.  Somewhere along the way, that feeling of uniqueness got lost in the mass credit market.  Well, customer service and personal touches are back, and providing that special experience is driving some competition between credit cards.   The result?  Really cool once-in-a-lifetime experiences for you!

American Express has long been a leader in providing their members special treatment and experiences.  One of those perks is the Front of the Line program, giving members early access to all types of entertainment, usually for the most popular bands, festivals and plays through Ticketmaster.  Not only can you get your tickets early, but if you are short of cash, you can also use your Membership Rewards points to pay for the tickets.

HAIM

See HAIM for free? One of many offerings through Front of the Line. Source: Ticketmaster

SPG lets you redeem points for elite experiences (called Moments by SPG). Some regular offerings include VIP suite access at Wrigley Field or Madison Square Garden (including concerts!), tickets to major sporting events (like the NHL Winter Classic), or musicals in Vegas or New York. For foodies, SPG offers exclusive dinners with the hottest chefs (like a private dinner party with Chef Keller at French Laundry in the Napa Valley). Every once in awhile SPG pulls out the really cool stuff, like access to award shows, Sundance Film Festival events, comedy festivals, or VIP access to major concerts.  Examples?  How about VIP access to P!nk in Amsterdam, or a meet and greet with Coldplay and VIP concert access?  SPG also promotes an ‘On Tour’ offering, where they package hotel nights with concert tickets to some of the biggest bands.  Follow U2 across South America? No problem!  It’s one of the reasons we have an SPG American Express card, which also gives us the Front of the Line access.

There are a lot of other alliances to note.  In the US, there are programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, which has auctioned off experiences such as Mad Men meet and greets and VIP packages including passes to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  North of the border there is TD Bank, a major sponsor of music education and events in Canada, which provides discounts on concerts through their TD Music Access program.  Offerings lately include 2-for-1 tickets and $10 per ticket concert credits.  In some cases they also have a reservation program for concerts that I have yet to try, but it looks pretty cool.

Reserve tickets for the hottest bands through TD Music Access (like Imagine Dragons in Montreal).  Source: TD

Reserve tickets for the hottest bands through TD Music Access (like Imagine Dragons in Montreal). Source: TD

So if you love music and you can’t afford to travel (or can’t afford the tickets for that matter), look into what points can do for you.  At the very least, it may help you quench your musical thirst!

Have you redeemed points for a concert, festival or other experience?  I’d love to hear about it!

My points collecting philosophy

I like to think of points collecting as ‘travel futures’.  Like investing in the stock market or in commodities, I try to make small investments (through credit card spend, flights or hotel stays) that will lead to big travel payoffs later.  So just like the ‘buy low, sell high’ mantra of stockbrokers, points collecting is a game of ‘spend small, experience big’.

I live in Canada, where the gains from credit card opportunities are pretty few and far between.  And I’m not sure how much I can get behind the credit card churning (signing up for credit cards and then cancelling after receiving the sign up bonuses) that occurs more commonly in the States.  So you won’t hear me changing out my credit cards all that frequently.

So what’s my strategy?  I have two main credit cards: the SPG American Express card and the MBNA Alaska Airlines card.  We put everything we can on these cards for the points, and pay them off as quickly as possible (though admittedly we don’t pay them off completely each month like many in this hobby).  The SPG Amex is one of the most flexible cards out there, with transfers to most airlines at a 1:1 ratio (and a bonus of 5,000 points with any 20,000 point transfer).  It’s all about flexibility with SPG.

The Alaska Airlines card, however, I mainly have as a back up (not everyone accepts Amex).  But it’s also great because it gives you a companion ticket for approximately $110 on an annual basis.  When you live in a market like Edmonton, where it takes over $450 just to get out of the province, that $110 ticket comes in super-handy.  We tend to use the ticket for high price travel times, like visiting my parents in California over the holidays.  This year, we paid $110 for what was $1,000 in flights over Christmas.

When it comes to hotel loyalty, we typically look for clean, centrally located hotels.  We don’t need really fancy places, but occasionally like a little luxury.  We only stay in hotels perhaps a total of 20 to 30 days a year, which by frequent traveler standards is pretty paltry.  So to me, it’s all about trying to get the most points for the best value.  I that puts  IHG brand hotels at the top of my list.  Most people associate IHG with Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, but they also have some lovely boutique hotels (Hotel Indigo) and luxury options (InterContinental). They also have stackable promotions (you can earn multiple points promotions on one stay), which makes staying with IHG pretty lucrative.  And in the past year IHG have had some really fun earning games, which really hook me (such as Crack the Case and the Big Win promos).  But mostly, I find the hotels clean, affordable, and well-located.  Other than IHG, we do also stay at the occasional Starwood and Club Carlson brands, especially during games or promotions.

My last statement: free is good! Duh, right?  But there are so many ways to earn free points, why wouldn’t someone want to?  There are survey companies like e-miles and e-rewards, which do take a bit of time.  But then there are also really fun games, like La Quinta’s Stay and Play.  Free is a no-brainer.  In Canada you can earn Aeroplan points for groceries, gas, pharmacy purchases, etc.  And all these little things add up.

There are a ton of blogs out there that tout the high-end hotel brands (in fact most of them).  But I find the more expensive the hotel, the further I get from the ‘real people’ and places I’m trying to experience.  I’d rather spend my money in a open-air market or on a unique experience than in a luxury hotel when in a foreign country.

So that’s my philosophy.  I’m not a points guru, as I don’t look at every program and every opportunity.  But I do spend enough time on points collection to make my own travel go further, and I will tend to focus on those opportunities in this blog.

Few hotel award nights still available for Coachella

Although the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival sold out in just a few hours (!) on Friday, there are still a few hotels available on award nights for those lucky enough to have available points.  Not surprisingly, there are fewer hotel rooms available for Weekend 1 than Weekend 2, so those with passes for the former better get crackin’.  There really are no hotels within walking distance of the Empire Polo Club, where the festival is held, so you will either need to drive or take one of Coachella’s shuttles from the hotel.

Weekend 1: April 11 to April 14 Availability

Weekend 2: April 18 to April 21 Availability

Good luck, and let me know how your Coachella adventure goes!

It never hurts to ask

When I get the time, I’m going to write an entry detailing all the reasons I use Alaska Airlines as my primary airline, as well as my catch-all frequent flyer collection account (although I did mention some of the reasons in my AA/US Airways post).  But for this post I just wanted to put it out there that if you are unsatisfied with an experience, it never hurts to tell the company or ask for some kind of compensation.

On December 23rd, I had a less than stellar experience with Alaska Airlines (or more specifically, Horizon Air).  First off, they knew they had an issue with the cargo doors when they were unloading baggage from the previous flight, (which came straight from the Captain’s mouth), but proceeded to board the plane (without a mechanic even on-site).  This resulted in more than an hour on the tarmac on a Bombardier Q400 (think narrow plane, uncomfortable  seats).  This is Edmonton.  In the winter.  And that’s just cruel.  But things really went downhill when we arrive in Seattle.

Let me jump in here and explain that Alaska Air has a progressive Baggage Service Guarantee, stating that if your bags are not at the carousel by 20 minutes after arrival to your gate, you are entitled to either a $25 discount code or 2,500 Mileage Plan Bonus Miles.  But here’s what happened: technically our bags got to the carousel within 20 minutes, but Alaska put the wrong carousel number up on the screen.  So that means that a bunch of people from our flight were standing around a completely different carousel filled with bags from Delta flights for about 45 minutes.  We all did the two-step of annoyance while looking at each other in confusion, until suddenly our flight dropped off the baggage claim screens altogether.

It was Christmas, I was trying to be patient.  But when the flight dropped from the screen, I lost it and walked over to the baggage customer service area.  I immediately saw my bag being taken off a different carousel by a porter and thrown onto a cart.  I asked the porter what was going on, and when he explained all the bags had been circling for a half-hour, I let him know that the screens were displaying the wrong carousel number.  Within seconds an announcement went out about the carousel change and other passengers migrated over.

After the delay in Edmonton and the delay in Seattle, I was pretty cranky.  This was a short hop of a flight that had now taken over twice as long as usual. I really didn’t want to get into the huge customer service line-up to collect my 2,500 points.  I sent out an admittedly snarky tweet to @AlaskaAir, not really expecting much of it.  I left the airport and also put a comment on the Alaska Airlines page.  While I have yet to receive a response from the website, Alaska’s twitter crew were great and ended up giving both my husband and me 2,000 Mileage Plan Bonus Miles as a goodwill gesture.  This is less than the 2,500 in the policy, but my husband didn’t have a checked bag, so we’re ahead.  Plus, with the snarky tweet, I felt a little bad anyway.

2,000 Bonus Miles for inconvenience... I'll take it!

2,000 Bonus Miles for inconvenience… I’ll take it!

So I learned two things: 1) be polite, but do contact customer service if you are not satisfied with a product and 2) Twitter is now the best way to reach almost any company when you have issues.  It never hurts to ask or comment, as hopefully the company will learn from its mistakes.

Have you had customer service issues when traveling that were resolved in a positive way?  I’d love to hear how it went.

The road less travelled

It was August 1991.  I had just turned 21 a few months before, and I was dumped right before that by my boyfriend of six years.  I was out of college and working two internships so at least I was busy.  But I still remember those days as being depressing and confusing.  I filled up most of my time hanging out with friends to avoid being alone, sleepwalking through my days.

One weekend, everyone was gone.  Literally all of my friends were at weddings, or visiting their family, or on vacation.  On Saturday I woke up with absolutely nothing to do, and I was terrified of the chasm of that day.  I had to fill the emptiness.  After puttering around a bit, I came across my Canon AE-1.  I picked it up and the weight of it in my hand felt so familiar and wonderful.  I grabbed some film and ran off to my car, not really knowing where I was going.

I headed north from Davis, California, where I was living at the time.  I spent the day crisscrossing county roads, soaking in the sun and snapping photos of seemingly bucolic country life.  I saw sunflowers with their faces following the path of the sun, mannikins dancing through colorful gardens, and garden gnomes frozen mid-skip around manmade ponds.  It was a lovely day, spent all on my own.

A few months later I enrolled in a darkroom course, and we were assigned to take photos to develop in class.  I pulled out the camera and took some cursory shots to finish up a roll.  Back in class, I was surprised to find the photos from my day trip through Yolo County.  I developed the film and immediately felt that same feeling of peacefulness and accomplishment as I studied the black and white negatives laid out on the light table.

I chose my first photo to develop: a telephone pole and street sign for Road 85, one of the countless county roads I had driven that day.  That photo became the first of several that I developed and printed on my own.  I framed it and put it on my wall, a reminder of that day when I decided to do something with my life instead of just wallowing in self-pity.

I haven’t seen that photo in quite some time.  It got packed away with countless other treasures after a flood a few years back.  But a few weeks ago I came across it again when I was flipping through photos on my flickr account, and I instantly was taken back to that day 20 years ago, holding my AE-1 and squinting into the sun.

Life comes full-circle I guess, because I am feeling like that scared, helpless person again.  After decades of knowing exactly where my life was going, of having plans and hitting goals, life has handed me some doozies in the past year, and I feel… well, I don’t know exactly what I feel.   But I know I’m not falling into that woe-is-me trap.  So it’s time to start a new project.  A new beginning to take control of this messy life.

So I’m going back to my road less traveled.  Back to Road 85.