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!

Hangout Festival: beats on the beach

Surf, sand and sounds at the Hangout Music Festival. (Source: barryfest.com)

Surf, sand and sounds at the Hangout Music Festival. (Source: barryfest.com)

You can spend a few days at the beach, or go to a killer music festival, but rarely do those two experiences converge into one amazing weekend.  Welcome to the Hangout Music Festival, held each May in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  It’s literally on the beach.  That’s right, like right on the sand.

This is the fifth year of the Hangout Festival, which grew in popularity quickly due to the incredible line-up each year amidst the soft sands of the Gulf of Mexico. This year’s line-up includes a mix of indie, hip-hop, rock and electronic music.  Headlining are Outkast, The Killers, Jack Johnson and The Black Keys.  The supporting acts could easily headline festivals themselves, including the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Modest Mouse, Portugal. The Man, and Fitz and the Tantrums.

The location at the beach, while playful and fun, does make for transportation issues due to parking shortages.  The festival deals with the issue well though with moderately priced festival shuttle passes that run to the various hotels in the city.  Early bird shuttle passes are sold out, so the price now stands at $50/person.

Beachy goodness.

Beachy goodness.

Hotel prices have skyrocketed of late, but there are still some free nights available at local hotels.

Holiday Inn Express Orange Beach – On the Beach (24700 Perdido Beach Boulevard, Orange Beach) – 35,000 points/ night.  This hotel is on the eastern shuttle route.

Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites – Foley (3155 Abbey Lane, Foley) – 35,000 points/night.  This hotel is actually about 12 miles away from the festival, so your best bet would be to drive to Pelican Place, on the North Line shuttle route, and then take the shuttle down from there.

Econo Lodge Inn & Suites – Foley (2682 South McKenzie Street, Foley) – 20,000 points/night.  Another good option for driving to Pelican Place and then taking the shuttle the rest of the way.

Best Western Riviera Inn – Foley (1503 South McKenzie Street, Foley) – 20,000 points/night.  Just down the street from the other Foley hotels.

So grab your sunscreen, beach ball and best friends and plan to Hangout in Gulf Shores.

Bumbershoot: a gem of a festival in the Emerald City

Music under the Needle.  Photo credit: cntraveler.com

Music under the Needle. Photo credit: cntraveler.com

Seattle closes down the summer festival season with a huge party every Labor Day Weekend, with the eclectic Bumbershoot Festival.  Dubbed the largest arts festival in the United States, Bumbershoot sees up to 100,000 or so attendees over the long weekend.  You may be thinking, “what kind of weird-ass name is Bumbershoot”? Well, it’s a synonym for umbrella, which makes sense considering Seattle’s drizzly weather.

While the 2014 line-up has not been announced yet, Bumbershoot crosses many music genres, often sporting well-known festival headliners, the cream of the indie crop, and a slew of homegrown Seattle artists.  This year should be no exception.

The festival setting is the Seattle Center grounds (think: Space Needle), which is just north of downtown and Belltown.  The area is well-served by transit, including by bus, ferry, and monorail (which takes you to Westlake Center, where you can pick up the light rail system).   Some of the newest and least expensive hotels just happen to be within walking distance, with ritzier hotels just a short walk or monorail ride uphill to downtown.

Seattle Center provides the perfect setting for the festival, with large open spaces for sunny days and a number of exhibition buildings for rainy days.  The main stage is indoors at Key Arena, which has decent acoustics and provides a reprieve from the weather and a (fairly) comfy seat.  In addition to a talent-packed music line-up, pass holders also get into comedy shows, dance performances, and a number of exhibits celebrating the Great Northleft, as they like to put it.

As it is still early in the year, there are several hotels nearby available on award nights.

All of the above hotels are within a few blocks walk of the Seattle Center and have availability from August 29 to September 2.  There are even more hotels in the downtown area, often for higher points.  Downtown hotels tend to be highrises, so they may stay available with points even longer.

While Seattle Center provides for many food options right on the grounds, the Belltown neighborhood is just a few short blocks away.  Belltown is home to many up-and-coming restaurants, gastropubs, and even my favorite hole-in-the-wall bar, the Five Point Cafe.

So enjoy one of the most laid back urban festivals in North America, and don’t forget your bumbershoot!

Big Guava: big festival, big savings

You may not have heard of it (yet), but that’s good.  It means that you can see quality acts for cheap.  Well, cheap for a festival. Big Guava is a new festival in Tampa, Florida that is sporting a lot of the big acts you’ll see around the concert circuit this year. A three-day pass for the inaugural year includes parking, free rides and general admission, and is still under $200 per person all in.  But you know what’s really cool?  Hotels are nearby and they are cheap! No ridiculous $500/night hotels like other festivals sporting many of the same bands.

What about the lineup?  Awesome!  Headlining are Outkast, Vampire Weekend, and Foster the People.  Other festival favorites include Cake, Grouplove, Haim, Violent Femmes, Tegan and Sara, Walk the Moon, Band of Skulls and many, many other fun bands.

Vampire Weekend draws a good crowd!

Vampire Weekend draws a good crowd!

The venue is the State Fairgrounds in Tampa, which has many inexpensive hotels nearby.  How inexpensive?  Well, if you want to pay up front, some are as cheap as $75/night plus taxes.  Many hotels are available on award nights as well, although if you snag a cheap rate, this would be a great time to earn points that you can burn on more expensive festivals later.

Violent Femmes still put on an awesome show!

Violent Femmes still put on an awesome show!

In fact, I’d recommend the two IHG (Holiday Inn and Staybridge) hotels, which have stackable promotions, in order to really get the points earning machine running.  Trust me, the IHG promotions will add up fast.  For the best info on how to sign up for IHG’s promotions, read the first post in this FlyerTalk thread, and then sign up for all of the codes at the bottom of the first post under ‘2014 codes in numerical order’.

Here are some of the great hotel deals:

Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites : Tampa-Fairgrounds-Casino (8610 Elm Fair Boulevard) – $127/night or 15,000 points

Staybridge Suites : Tampa East- Brandon (3624 North Falkenburg Road) – $155/night or 20,000 points

Comfort Suites at Fairground-Casino (4506 Oak Fair Blvd.) – $105/night or 16,000 points

Sheraton Tampa East Hotel (10221 Princess Palm Ave.) – $111/night or 7,000 points

With deals like these, hopefully many people will get to enjoy the super-talented acts coming to Tampa.  If you make it to Big Guava, please comment and let the rest of us know how it rates!

Award night hotels for New Orleans Jazz Fest

This year the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is celebrating its 45th anniversary with an all-star lineup.  One of the longest running festivals, it is also one of the most diverse in terms of music (despite the moniker).  This year the festival is being held over two long weekends, from April 25 to May 4.

The festival is held about 10 minutes north(ish) of the French Quarter in a residential area  and next to one of the iconic New Orleans cemeteries.  There really aren’t any options (other than one B&B) within walking distance, so the festival partners with Gray Line Tours for continuous shuttle service between three different stops near downtown and the French Quarter.  The shuttle gets preferential access to the site (meaning less traffic lineups), and is really a good deal.

Jazz Fest attendees are really lucky this year because there are still a few good hotels left on award nights within walking distance of the shuttle stops, and right smack in the middle of the French Quarter action.

Some of the fun from 2013! (Source: New Orleans Jazz Fest)

Weekend 1 & 2 Availability

Availability for the first weekend is pretty slim by now.  But there are a couple of options.

Country Inn & Suites New Orleans (315 Magazine Street) – 44,000 points/night
This hotel is closer to the convention center than the heart of the French Quarter, but not horribly far from a shuttle stop.  Not super close though for those that can’t walk 10 or 15 minutes.  For those that have a Club Carlson credit card, read up on award nights as you can save lots of points and a get an extra night free.

Wyndham Riverfront New Orleans (701 Convention Center Blvd) – 30,000 points/night
The Wyndham Riverfront, as the address suggests, is also right by the convention center. At 30,000 points/night, this is a good deal consider you would have to pay about $350/night to stay during the festival.

Weekend 2 Availability

IHG has a few more hotels available for the second weekend, in great locations.

Crowne Plaza New Orleans French Quarter (739 Canal Street) – 40,000 points/night
You can’t beat this location for fun, fun, fun in the French Quarter, and it’s just a few blocks to the shuttle stop in front of the Sheraton.

Intercontinental Hotel New Orleans (444 St. Charles Ave) – 50,000 points/night
The Intercontinental is a ritzy place also in the heart of the action, and also just a few blocks walk to the Sheraton shuttle stop.  It’s a bit more spendy, but this is a lovely hotel and a good deal for the points as well.

Have fun jazzing it up with these free stays in the Big Easy!

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.

Only one hotel near Bonnaroo left on award nights

A sea of camping, with a little festival.

If you can sleep in this, more power to you! (source: musiccityblog.wordpress.org).

Bonnaroo is the ultimate camping festival, set just outside the town of Manchester, Tennessee.  But not everyone enjoys tenting or sleeping in a sea of RVs.  Manchester is a pretty small town for such a large festival, so there are few options for hotels and even fewer available with points for the Bonnaroo weekend (this year June 12 to 15).  That being said, there is an awesome deal still available about 13 miles down the road in Tullahoma at the Holiday Inn Express and Suites.

While the paid rate is a staggering $345 per night, you can still get award nights for just 15,000 IHG Rewards points.  Cash and points offers are also very reasonable if you are low on points.  If you have a minimum of 5,000 points, you can also buy the extra points you need at half price by doing the ‘secret work around‘ (which is not too much of a secret anymore).  Hurry though, as I’m sure this crazy good deal will be gone in a flash.

First time to Bonnaroo?  Visit the Bonnaroo Tips website for more info.

Using points to make festivals affordable

I’m the first to admit that I’m no spring chicken anymore, and living with neuropathy means no more roughing it by camping.  I have a real passion for new music that hasn’t waned as I’ve grown older.  But I’m not a general admission kind of girl anymore.  So last year I took a risk and decided to go to my first outdoor festival in over a decade: my husband and I headed to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California.

The Coachella Snail

Moving art at Coachella.

I don’t deal well with heat, as it really affects my condition and sometimes makes it difficult to walk.  So spending a full day out in the sun, on my feet, would be a challenge.  And it is imperative I get a good night’s rest in an air-conditioned room.  While I can walk long distances now under good conditions, I can’t rely on that ability when traveling.  So it was worth it to me to order VIP tickets to the festival to ensure a short(er) walk from the parking areas to the gates, and to have some shade during the day.

VIP tickets are admittedly expensive.  But I had a trade-off: free accommodations.  The beauty of Coachella is the bounty of hotels and resorts in the area.  I was lucky to find great availability with points for the Holiday Inn Express Palm Desert (20,000 pts/night), which beat paying over $250/night.  The property was easy to access, only about 10 minutes from the festival, and just far enough away that it wasn’t a madhouse.   So really, all we paid for that weekend was the VIP passes, some food (fairly cheap) and the rental car.  The rest was all points.

Social D

A lazy Sunday watching Social Distortion on the main stage.

The weekend worked out so great that we are trying our hand at festivals again in 2014.  This time we are attending the SXSW Music Festival.  While I tried in earnest to find Starwood, Hyatt and other chains in the downtown Austin area as soon as dates were announced, I was once again only rewarded by IHG properties.  We will be staying a few nights at the Town Lake Holiday Inn, on the edge of downtown, but still within walking distance of most of the venues (plus, they do have a shuttle).  The last few nights we found availability right in the heart of the action at the Intercontinental: Stephen F. Austin hotel.  The convention center is literally right around the corner.  Since this is our first time at SXSW, we really don’t know what to expect, so we are going to try to go with the flow as much as possible.  What I do know is without the free hotel, there would be no way we could afford the music badges or attend the festival at all.

I hope to highlight other festivals throughout the year and share any availability I come across with major hotel chains.  If the Olympics is more your thing, you might also want to take a look at the MommyPoints blog, as she has highlighted her adventures in securing hotels for both London and Sochi.

Have you used points for accommodations for arts or music festivals, or for major sporting events?  If so, I would love to hear how it worked out for you!

A dive bar and awesome fireworks

No matter where I go, I try to find a local hangout.  I’m a greasy spoon connoisseur and have long loved the many dives to be found in Seattle.  It’s one of my favorite cities, and I really enjoy the crowd that gathers each year on New Year’s Eve around the Seattle Center to watch fireworks, listen to bands, and enjoy the company of other revelers.

I’m not a big people person, so hanging out in crowds is not my normal behavior. But every once in a while you find a great spot that makes the crowd enjoyable.  And that place for me on NYE is The 5 Point Cafe in the shadow of the Space Needle.  It’s pure Seattle grunge at its finest.  It harkens to the dives of old with tiny bathrooms (no ADA here!), walls covered in stickers, loud music, and snarky comments in its menus.  And they mix a killer long island iced tea.

Space Needle NYE

Spectacular fireworks frame the Space Needle.

The eclectic crowd is a blast, and the hours fly by with friendly patrons and lots of people watching.  And guess what?  No cover.  While other bars and pubs in the area jack up the rate on New Year’s due to location, location, location, The 5 Point Cafe stays true to its roots.  And the best part?  Awesome fireworks at midnight.

A few hours before midnight, the cafe turns on the patio heaters and the crowd starts spilling out onto the street.  The real rush out begins with the countdown, where all are rewarded with amazing views of the fireworks.  This year, it was getting a bit cloudy as midnight came around, and the fireworks created even more smoke.  The effect was both eerie and beautiful, and made for a wonderful memory.

Foggy Space Needle

The fog gathering around the Space Needle.

For those from out-of-town, there are tons of chain hotels within walking distance, many of which had availability on award nights right up to a few weeks before New Year’s.  We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Seattle – Downtown, which was a refreshing 15 minute walk from the Seattle Center and just a few blocks away from the monorail that runs from the Seattle Center to the Westlake Center.

What are your favorite destinations and hangouts for New Year’s?  While I love Seattle, I’m hoping to try out new and exciting experiences each year.