Author: Kendra

How To Get The Southwest Companion Pass – The Holy Grail of Travel Rewards

How To Get The Southwest Companion Pass – The Holy Grail of Travel Rewards

 

The Southwest Companion Pass is up there as one of the most coveted travel perks. And there’s no question why; it allows you to book travel on any Southwest flight, and take a companion for free regardless of how you pay for your own flight. If you time it right, you can end up with nearly two years of free travel for you and your favorite travel companion, essentially doubling the value of your Southwest Rapid Reward Points, or cash (if you’re one of those people).

Southwest Companion Pass

There are some really cool things you can do with the pass. If it’s just you and your spouse traveling together, it would make sense for only one of you to get it, and live high on the hog until it expires. Then you could get a second one in the other spouse’s name, and do it all over again. If you have kids, you could both go for it at the same time, and then be able to take the whole family (assuming that a whole family is four people). Or if you have another couple whose company you enjoy enough to travel together, you could both get it at the same time and take some couples retreats together. Either way you go about it, it’s going to be an awesome deal for you.

How to Get the Southwest Companion Pass

So, how to get the Southwest Companion Pass? That’s an excellent question… well ya, it was mine. It’s really quite simple: you just need to acquire 110,000 Rapid Reward points in a calendar year. Just so we’re being precise, that means that you must earn 110,000 points at any point between January 1 and December 31 of a given year. You will not qualify if you rack up the required amount between say, February 1 and January 31 of the following year. It’s very important to keep that in mind, because nothing would suck worse than earning so many points throughout the year, only to have such a huge disappointment when you don’t get your pass in February.

I’ve heard of some people being under the misconception that the Companion Pass costs 110,000 points, as in once you have 110,000 points you redeem them for the Companion Pass and then have no points left. The good news is that is NOT the case. You qualify for the Companion Pass once you have acquired 110,000 in a calendar year, and those points are yours to keep. And now they’re really 220,000 points since you’ve just doubled their value.

Well that seems like a lot of points to earn in a year, and it is. There are some fancy ways of going about it, though, that I promise will not break the bank. In good old Triumphant Adventures fashion, the answer is credit card sign-up bonus points. Southwest counts not only the regular points you earn by using their co-branded credit cards for every day purchases, but the sign-up points that Chase offers as well. This means that if you sign up for the cards and spend the minimum amount to get the bonus, then you’ll only need to spend the difference to make it to 110,000 points.

Chase/Southwest Co-Branded Credit Cards

Chase Southwest Cards

The good news is that Chase has three co-branded cards that you can choose from listed in the chart below.  Currently, both personal Southwest cards have an elevated bonus of 60,000 points, which means it’s an excellent time to sign up. However, keep in mind that we are coming up on year end. If you acquire the 110,000 by the end of 2017, it will only be valid until December 31, 2018, which would only give you a little over a year to use it. Whereas if you wait until January, you could probably acquire it in the first quarter of 2018 and then have it until December 31, 2019, which would give you almost two years to use it. The downside is that the higher bonus might not last until January, so it’s a tradeoff.

Credit CardTypical Sign Up BonusElevated Sign Up BonusAnnual FeeForeign Transaction Fees
Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus
40,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $1,000 in 3 months60,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $2,000 in 3 months$69Yes
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier
40,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $3,000 in 3 months60,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $2,000 in 3 months$99No
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business
60,000 Rapid Rewards Points after spending $3,000 in 3 monthsNo Elevated Sign Up Bonus. See Typical Sign Up Bonus column to the left.$99No

You may be wondering if you can apply for, and get all three cards within a calendar year. Absolutely you can. Now, I can’t tell you if Chase will approve or deny your credit card applications, but I can tell you that I did it, and hundreds of people have as well. Some have applied for both personal cards at the same time, while others have applied for a personal and a business card at the same time. Still others have spread their applications out over a few months.

 

Francisco
Take a weekend getaway to San Francisco, and see the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge.

If you get them a few months apart, you should apply for the Southwest Plus first; here’s why. If a bank offers two different versions of a co-branded card, there’s usually one that’s a higher status than the other. It will generally have a higher annual fee and additional perks. Often Chase will not automatically approve you online, and that may result in having to speak with an actual human being on the phone about why you want both versions of the card. It’s much easier to explain why you want a card that is considered an upgrade form the card you currently have. So, if you apply for the Southwest Premier when you already have the Southwest Plus, you can tell them that you will be overseas and want to have a card with no foreign transaction fees. You can even add that you like the increased 6,000-point anniversary bonus instead of the Plus’s 3,000. You may run in to similar questions when you apply for the business card; but that’s easy, you want to separate your business and personal expenses. We’ll be writing a post about how to qualify for business cards in the future, and we’ll be sure to share a link here once it’s done.

Chase 5/24 Rule

Another thing to remember is the ever-despised Chase 5/24 rule. If you have been approved for five or more cards in the last twenty-four months from any bank, then your chance of getting approved for any Chase card plummets dramatically. So if you’ve been acquiring credit card points heavily for the last few years, that would definitely put a dent in things. This is one of the reasons we tell everyone to do the Chase cards before they do anything else. If you’ve been doing this for a while, there will be a point where you run out of cards to apply for, and you’ll have to back off for a couple years to let the 5/24 rule reset. But don’t worry, if you do it right, you’ll still have a stock pile of points to use for vacations during this time. In fact, that’s the stage we’re in right now. We’ve got about another 5 months before we can apply for Chase cards again, and we have a ton of American Airlines, Delta, and Ultimate Rewards points left to take our New England trip next month. Anyway… 5/24 Rule. Just remember it, and plan accordingly.

The Numbers

Now, let’s talk math. If you sign up for the elevated 60,000 sign-up bonus offers, you’ll earn 120,000 points. Easy peasy. However, the elevated bonuses come and go. I’ve seen the bonuses be 40,000, 50,000, and 60,000, with the spending requirements being either $1,000, $2,000, or $3,000. So, let’s assume that both personal cards are 40,000 points after spending $2,000 and the business card is 60,000 points after spending $3,000. So you sign up for and are approved for one personal and one business card. You spend $5,000 ($2,000 + $3,000) to qualify for the sign-up bonuses. You’ll now have 105,000 points (40,000 bonus points + 60,000 bonus points + 5,000 spending points). Now you’ll just need to continue spending with the card until you’ve spent an additional $5,000 which will put you at 110,000 total points. This is totally doable in a calendar year. Like I said, the amount of the sign-up bonuses and spending requirements changes often, but you can plug in the math for whatever offer is current when you decide to go for it.

New York
Finally take that trip to New York that you’ve always dreamed of.

Points That Do Not Qualify Towards the Companion Pass

While spending and bonus points count toward your 110,000 qualifying points, it’s important to remember that there are some other ways to get points. And these other ways DO NOT qualify for your 110,000 points.

  • Points transferred from Ultimate Reward Points
  • Points purchased from Southwest
  • Points earned through Southwest partners
  • Points earned from the Southwest shopping portal
  • Points earned from the Southwest dining club

The only other source of points that does qualify for the 110,000 points are those that you earn by flying, and actually paying for it with cash… something I don’t do much of, but still worth mentioning.

Designate Your Companion and Start Flying

So you got both cards, earned a shit load of points, and are now the proud owner of the Southwest Companion Pass. Now what?

Log in to Southwest.com and click on My Account. Then you can enter all the necessary details for your travel companion. A few days later, you’ll receive the pass in the mail. Generally speaking, you don’t actually need the physical pass. It’s stored in your account, so any time you book a flight online, you can go back in and add your companion to that flight for free. Keep in mind, your companion can only fly if you are flying. I have read a couple stories of people who have been asked to present their physical pass, and then were not allowed on the flight when they didn’t have it, so Dustin and I always make sure we have it with us. As of now, no one has ever asked to see it.

Costa Rica
Southwest also serves many international destinations in Central America and the Caribbean, including Costa Rica.

Let’s say you don’t have a committed travel buddy and you just want to be able to take whomever willy-nilly. Southwest does allow you to change your companion. You have to call in to their customer service to do so. Plus, you can only do it three times in a calendar year. To be honest, I’m not sure if that means you can change it three times (and thus have four total distinct companions per year) or if it means you’re allowed to have three different companions. Luckily my husband has always been my companion, so that’s an issue I haven’t had to experience.

So, long story short. The Southwest Companion Pass kicks a considerate amount of travel ass. It will allow you to fly with a companion for free for up to two years if you are able to acquire 110,000 points in a calendar year. You can do so with the help of the three Chase/Southwest credit cards and their associated sign-up bonuses. If you have any questions I didn’t answer, please leave me a comment. Until then, go out there and get the Companion Pass.

Top Sixteen Attractions in Paris, France

Top Sixteen Attractions in Paris, France

Paris is big. I mean big… really big. While many cities have a larger population not many surpass its global dominance in art, fashion, gastronomy, and culture. My most recent European trip to Paris allowed me to spend five days frolicking around this delightful city, yet I still didn’t feel I had enough time to enjoy it all. Having two trips to Paris now under my belt, I can confidently say these are the top sixteen attractions in Paris, France. And yes, I said sixteen. Not many cities will get a top (whatever) list that big either. Enjoy.

1 – Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

One of the most iconic landmarks, the Iron Lady is worth the wait. Even if the wait is past thousands of street venders, through winding lines, and crammed into elevators like herded cattle. Before Dustin was completely converted to European travels he would say, “why go to Europe, to see the Eiffel Tower I can see the same thing in Vegas.” Of course I would counter with, “it’s not the same thing!”, and it isn’t. He came around to my thinking, which you can read more about here.

2 – Notre-Dame Cathedral*

Notre Dame

Standing in the square in front of Notre-Dame you can find point zero, the center of France and the point by which all distances in France are measured. Like many churches constructed in 1163 Notre-Dame, translated as Our Lady, is dedicated to Mary the mother of Jesus. However, the dedication mass wouldn’t occur for nearly two centuries when Our Lady was completed in 1345. The faith of the people mustering the money and energy to continue working on the cathedral, often without pay, is as astonishing as the structure itself.  Especially considering the medieval tools they had to work with.

Taller and filled with light from stained glass windows, the Gothic style encompassed in Notre-Dame is a major improvement over the Romanesque style. The height and windows are possible because of two things. First by crisscrossing pointed arches along the interior, which supports the weight of the roof by pushing it outward. Second, the famous flying buttresses on the outside of the cathedral also support the roof by pushing in against the arches pushing out. Although both of these features are for structural integrity, they are stunning. After walking through the cathedral, head up the 200 feet (60 m) tall bell tower that inspired Victor Hugo’s story of a deformed bell-ringer. The hideous yet functional gargoyles sticking out from pillars and buttresses represent the souls caught between heaven and earth while also serving as rain spouts. Entrance to the cathedral is free; however, climbing the bell tower to enjoy the spectacular views and gargoyles costs 8.50 euros. Nevertheless, if you have the Paris Museum Pass it is included.

Notre Dame Gargoyle

3- Sainte-Chapelle*

Although Notre-Dame is famous for its stained glass rose windows, the small Sainte-Chapelle is the place to see immaculate stained glass. A gem of Gothic style, the chapel was built in 7 years. An impressive feat, considering Notre-Dame took 200 years to complete. The stunning stained glass covers 15 windows all nearly 50ft (15m) tall. Each pane depicts different scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Visitors to the chapel are required to pass through security as the chapel is located in the center of the Palais de Justice, a government building.

Saint Chapel Windows – Photo Credit Christophe Benoist

4 – Seine River

By day or by night, enjoy time along the Seine River. Whether you choose a leisurely stroll along the banks or a romantic dinner cruise I recommend spending some on the Seine. My first evening cruise was magical and I couldn’t wait to take Dustin back to experience it with him.

The Seine River

5 – Pont Neuf

Pont Neuf or “new bridge” is the oldest standing bridge across the river Seine in Paris today. It connects the heart of the city Ile de la Cite to the rest of Paris. It was given the name to distinguish it from older bridges lined on both sides with houses. However, this bridge has remained after the others were replaced. All through the 18th century, Pont Neuf was the center of Paris. Alive with crime and commerce, the bridge attracted street performers, hustlers, pick-pockets, tooth pullers, sellers of flesh, and gangs hiding in and around it. Flocking to see the sights, laugh, chat, make love and enjoy life the bridge crowded with people. The central role of this bridge declined as its atmosphere subdued. Today you can stroll across a piece of history on this lovely bridge as you make your way to the heart of Paris.

Pont Neuf

 

6 – Paris Catacombs

I was ecstatic to go to the dark underworld of Paris’ catacombs. As a girl who is obsessed with Halloween and a touch of the macabre, this is right up my alley.

Before the remains of over six million dead were stacked below the streets of Paris, the catacombs began as a limestone quarry. The caves and winding tunnels of the quarry stretch over 186 miles (300 km) beneath Paris, but only a portion is open to the public.

By the end of the 18th century, Paris had a major problem. Cemeteries like Le Innocents were beyond full, and yet people still had the audacity to die. To make more room, Le Innocent exhumed the long-dead and packed their bones into mass graves. However, the dead continued to demand more places to lie which led to shoddy burials, unearthed corpses, and open graves. Naturally, people began complaining of the putrid stench of decomposing flesh. King Louis XV tried to solve the issue with a series of ineffectual decrees limiting burials within the city.

Paris CatacombsIn May of 1780 the situation came to a literal breaking point. A basement wall adjoining Le Innocent collapsed due to the mass grave behind it. Spilling rotting corpses into the neighboring property and forcing Parisian authorities to take action. The idea of moving the dead to the subterranean passageways of the recently renovated quarry gained ground and eventually became law in 1785. A nightly procession of the dead, hauled by wagon through the streets, continued for two years before the overpopulated cemeteries emptied.

Finally offering a place for all of the dead, the Paris catacomb walls are filled with bones. Nevertheless, not all of the tunnels of the old quarry are lined with stacked bones. In 2004 police discovered a fully equipped movie theater, a stocked bar, and restaurant in one of the caverns. In 2015 Airbnb paid 350,000 euros to offer customers the eerie chance to stay overnight in the Catacombs.

Whether you’re ready to spend a night with the dead or not I recommend making this a stop on your Paris trip. Just note that some can find this site disturbing. I do not recommend it for those that are highly claustrophobic as some of the passages are quite narrow. Nevertheless, exploring the dark underworld of Paris is fascinating, slightly creepy, and thoroughly enjoyable.

7 – Orsay Museum*

Orsay

Housed in an old train station built for the 1900 World’s Fair, the Orsay is a museum devoted to arts between 1848-1914. It holds the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works in the world. The idea to house painting, sculptures, furniture, and photography from this era was to bridge the gap from the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art.  It’s rumored that most of the pieces were held in the basement of the Louvre until they found their home in the Orsay.

Given the choice between the Louvre and the Orsay I prefer the Orsay.  The fascinating works of Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir are captivating and the size of the museum is more manageable than the vast Louvre. I suggest going to the Louvre and the Orsay on different days in order to appreciate each museum for what it has to offer.

8 – The Louvre *

The Louvre

Home to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the Louvre is considered the world’s largest art museum. It houses collections from western middle ages, ancient orient, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, and Islamic civilizations. In total there are 35,000 works to be discovered, and that’s just currently on display.

The museum’s 800-year-old history began in the late 12th century when Phillip II built a medieval fortress to protect the city from Viking attacks. Due to the ever-expanding city, the fortress lost its defensive function and was converted to the main residence of French nobility in 1546. During the French Revolution, it was decreed that the Louvre should be used as a museum to display France’s masterpieces.

With all the collections on display in the Louvre, I admit that the Mona Lisa is not my favorite. It’s a lot smaller than I realized and you’ll have to throw a few elbows to make your way past the hording crowds to get a good view. It lies behind bulletproof glass to shield the piece from attackers. Including acid and a rock which were thrown at the painting in 1956 before the glass was installed.

Some would argue that the Mona Lisa didn’t acquire her fame until a disgruntled employee stole her from the Louvre. After hiding in a broom closet until close, the thief walked out with it under his coat. The thief Vincenzo Peruggia believed the painting should be returned to an Italian museum to be displayed. Once caught, he served six months in prison for the theft. Shortly after the theft, the painting began being hailed as a masterpiece of the Renaissance. However you feel about the Mona Lisa, you should check out this piece.

I go to the Louvre for the sculptures. My favorite piece is Winged Victory of Samothrace. The statue is a winged female figure which stood on the prow of a ship. I love trying to figure out how the artist was able to carve wet clothing out of stone. Other sculptures of note are Venus de Milo and Cupid’s Kiss.

One thing for sure is that my feet tired long before I explored every inch of the Louvre. Plan on spending at least 2-4 hours at the Louvre. Trust me you won’t run out of things to look at. If you want to avoid crowds, go early in the morning or in the evening.

Winged Victory

9 – Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

Located between the Louvre Museum and the Tuileries Garden. Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel was built to celebrate the victories of Napoleon and modeled after the famous Roman arches. This arch is richly decorated in rose marble and topped with a group of men on horses with names of battles and treaties of Napoleon. Take a moment to examine the three arches that comprise this monument before entering the Tuileries.

Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

10 – Tuileries Garden

A public garden separating the Louvre Museum from the Palace de la Concorde gets its name from the tile factories that previously stood here. Originally created by Queen Catherine de Medici as the garden of the Tuileries Palace, for her escape. However, Louis XIV re-landscaped the garden which gives it the current French formal style. The gardens’ two ponds are great for relaxation and soaking up some sunshine, but you’ll have to fight for a coveted sun chair. We stopped here to rest our feet after a morning strolling through the Louvre.

Tuileries Garden

11 – Champs-Elysees

Just over a mile long, the Champs-Elysees is probably the most famous avenue in the world. Running a straight line from the Louvre, through the Tuileries Gardens past the Egyptian Obelisk of Luxor and the Palace Concord it has massive sidewalks lined with leafy trees. Once the meeting place for politicians, it is now a hub for luxury shopping. It’s worth taking a stroll along, regardless if you want to shop.

Egyptian Obelisk of Luxor

12 – Arc de Triomphe*

The Arc de Triomphe stands at the western end of Champs-Elysees in the center of the Palace Charles de Gaulle. Towering 162 feet above Paris, it is one of the most famous monuments. Built in honor for those who fought for France during the Napoleonic Wars, the arch has become a revered patriotic site. Names of generals and their battles are engraved on the inside and at the top of the arch, but I love it for the relief sculptures and beautiful views of the city from the top. However, while I was enjoying the panoramic views, Dustin was trying to figure out the rules of a 20+ lane roundabout as we had to drive through one the next day. He concluded there aren’t any.

Arc de Triomphe

13 – Moulin Rouge

The Moulin Rouge is unmistakably the most famous cabaret show. Glamorous women and athletic men showcase their talents as professional cabaret dancers in bright colorful costumes. Expect that some of the women will be topless, however you will not experience any full nudity. Tickets can range between 110-500 euros. Dustin and I didn’t have the opportunity to attend a show, but we stopped by the theater to snap a few photos of the famous building. In the day, Moulin Rouge souvenirs can be purchased from the store around the corner on Rue Lepic, regardless of show attendance.

Moulin Rouge

14 – Montmartre

Montmartre is a neighborhood in northern Paris. The original inhabitants were forced out of Paris’ prime real estate by Napoleon III so they moved to the outskirts. Establishing their own “town” without the strict rules of the city, the area became popular for less reputable entertainment and drinking.

During the mid to late 1800s the area became home to many artisans including Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Picasso. A throwback to the artisan hey-day is Place du Tertre. A square just a few blocks from the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, Place du Tertre will tempt those passing by as today’s artist set up their easels and display their artwork. Wandering around the square, chances are you’ll be asked if you’d like your portrait painted, which can be a fun souvenir.  There are also many cafes and shops around the square offering artwork for reasonable prices. It’s easy to see why this area was, and continues to be, an inspiration to artists.

Monmarte
Photo Credit – Son of Groucho from Scotland

15 – Sacre-Coeur Basilica*

The white dome of this Roman Catholic basilica sits at the highest point in the city in Montmartre. Sacre-Coeur is built of travertine stone quarried in France. Inside you’ll find beautiful stained-glass windows and a mosaic in the apse that is among the largest in the world. Unfortunately, photographs are not permitted inside the basilica. Luckily tourists are permitted to climb the tower to the dome. After a winding climb up 300 steps, the top of the dome offers open air and spectacular panoramic views of Paris.

Sacre Cour

16 – Versailles

A day trip from Paris will take you to this magnificent palace and gardens. Originally a hunting pavilion for Louis XIII, the palace was expanded by Louis XIV and his ever-changing opulent style. For more about how to get there, tickets, and attractions of the palace and gardens click here. If you decide to go, make sure you wear comfortable shoes as you’ll want to investigate the gigantic gardens.

Orangery

 

*Entry ticket or tower access included with the Paris Museum Pass

Versailles Palace and Gardens Day Trip by Train

Versailles Palace and Gardens Day Trip by Train

Waking up in Paris next to Dustin was ethereal. It had been 10 years since I was in the city of lights, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I’d ever make it back there. Luckily, we learned how to achieve extraordinary travel on an ordinary budget using credit card bonus points.  This morning brought the electrified prospect of a Versailles and gardens day trip by train, a stop I had missed on my last trip to Paris.

Day trip to Versailles and Gardens

Getting to Versailles

Versailles is located 15 miles (25km) southeast of Paris, but instead of risking a traffic headache we opted to use public transportation. Since Versailles is an enormously popular tourist destination, trains run regularly from the city. Getting to the Versailles train is easily achieved by metro.

Unless you’re staying in Paris for weeks, I recommend purchasing a book of 10 tickets from the metro kiosk. It’s the most economical way to travel within the city, and if you use up your first book you can always purchase another. The only hiccup will be traveling from Versailles back into Paris, as it requires a separate ticket which can be purchased at the train station before your return for a few euros.

Having read about the crowds and the hellish lines we could be waiting in, we opted to start out early. After a short stop at the wrong metro platform, we made our way onto the correct train heading for Versailles. Exiting the platform, we were immediately bombarded by companies offering the “lowest” entry tickets. Trust me on this, if you haven’t purchased your tickets online, pass by all of these and head to tourist information center and purchase a Paris Museum Pass.

Paris Museum Pass

Paris Museum PassThe Paris Museum Pass grants access to almost all the big tourist sites in Paris. Best of all, this access allows you to enter the museums and monuments without waiting in eternal lines. It also grants access to the same site multiple times, if you choose. It is a HUGE time saver, and you may end up visiting some of the smaller museums that aren’t on your must do list. There are three options to choose from a 2, 4 or 6-day pass.

We chose the 4-day pass since it worked best for our itinerary. Before we purchased the Paris Museum Pass, I researched all the different places we wanted to see and how much each one cost so I could ensure we were getting the best deal. In order to be economical, we’d need to go to most of the major sites and even then, the savings were relatively small, but once I factored in the time it also saves it was easy to choose.

Ordering the pass online beforehand, will save you even more time. Just remember to allow enough time for it to ship. However, if you can’t purchase before your trip, you can obtain the pass from any participating museum location or tourist information center. For more information on the Paris Museum Pass, including pricing and participating locations, click here.

Chateau de Versailles

The palace is open every day except Monday, so plan your schedule accordingly. I recommend planning your visit to Versailles on a Saturday or Sunday, as the Musical Fountains and Garden shows run on those days, and should not be missed.

The palace began as King Louis XIII’s hunting pavilion, but was transformed and extended by Louis XIV when he moved his court and government there in 1682. It’s difficult to describe the opulence of the palace without learning a little about its most influential contributor, Louis XIV.

Louis XIV

LouisXIV
Sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Photo by Louis le Grand

Louis XIV inherited the crown at the tender age of 4 years old. When he turned 18, he assumed full reign from his regent mother Queen Anne. In the age of divine kings, he viewed himself as the direct representative of God. However, he accomplished the personification of that belief in a way unlike his counterparts in Austria, Spain, and England.  Adopting the sun and the Greek God Apollo as his emblems, Louis XIV is still referred to as, “The Sun King”.

Having a history resplendent with rebelling nobles, he controlled them by luring them to this countryside estate and hooking them on an extravagant lifestyle. The nobles were so encompassed with trying to keep up with the King’s fashion and good favor that the pesky act of ruling was left to the King, a meticulous ruler who oversaw his programs to the last detail. Keeping favor included the privilege of attending the King’s getting up and going to bed ceremonies, or in later years watching him dine. Louis XIV must have figured out a couple of things about governing, in his 72-year reign.

Palace Rooms

The palace contains 2,300 rooms, many named after planets linking to sun mythology or after Greek gods and goddesses. Every room is dressed to the nines. When the crown needed funding, they simply melted down part of the décor to boost their funds. With each passing room, I begin to understand the outrage of the lower classes leading to the French Revolution whilst also marveling at the extravagance.

Hall of Mirrors

The most famous room is actually a hall. The Hall of Mirrors, named for the large mirrors that lie opposite the arched windows, was built to replace a large terrace between the King and Queen’s apartments. Like the rest of Versailles, the hall pays tribute to the political, economic, and artistic prowess of France. Foreign dignitaries were often led through the hall to witness the splendor of France and it’s King. Even after the fall of the monarchy, the hall was a place of significance. The Treaty of Versailles, that ended World War I, was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. Being a history nerd, I was geeking out just being in this immaculate room.

Many kings added to the splendor of Versailles until the French Revolution in 1789, which forced royalty to forsake the estate as a residence and flee before the guillotine and the people claimed their heads.

The Gardens

Enceladus GroveWork on the gardens began at the same time as the palace and lasted 40 years. Considering the gardens just as important as the palace, Louis XIV reviewed each project wanting to see every detail. Thousands of men took part in creating this immense project. To maintain the design, the garden needs to be replanted once every 100 years.

Describing the gardens as large, does them an injustice. Our feet failed us long before we reached a quarter of the park and gardens. Dustin and I decided if we return to Versailles we will spend a little extra for the golf cart to save our feet and see everything from the Orangery to the Queen’s Garden behind the Estate of Trianon. Nevertheless, we attempted to do just that.

The Orangery

OrangeryThe Orangery sits just below the palace.  Spreading across the Orangery are two-hundred-year-old orange trees from Portugal, Spain, and Italy as well as lemon, palm, and pomegranate trees. Louis XIV gathered all the orange trees from the royal houses and some new from nearby countries. If that wasn’t enough, courtiers desperately seeking the King’s favor offered him their own orange trees. Soon the Orangery had the largest collection in Europe. Moving the trees inside the building during winter, offers protection from inclement weather.

Groves and Fountains

To truly experience the gardens, pay the extra fee on Saturday or Sunday for the Musical Fountains and Garden shows. Each fountain and grove comes alive as water sprouts from the decadent sculptures accompanied by music. The show is timed so you can walk between each section of the garden. I found myself imagining what it must have been like as a courtier wandering through these gardens for hours.  221 sculptures adorn the paths leading in and out of the groves. Making it the biggest open-air sculpture museum in the world. I think Louis XIV accomplished his goal of making the gardens a dramatic statement of his power.

 

The Estate of Trianon

With all the King’s public displays of godliness, it’s not surprising that he’d want to escape the tedium of court and the many on-lookers. Louis XIV began construction on the Grand Trianon Palace at the far north end of the Grand Canal.

Marie-Antoinette, Louis XVI’s wife, is the most famous occupant of Trianon. Designed as a respite for the royal family, it is more secluded and intimate. Less gaudy in decor than the Versailles palace, it still exudes luxury. Marie-Antoinette took a particular liking to this estate spending much of her time here. She oversaw work on the gardens, now known as the Queen’s gardens.

Estate of TrianonPreparing for our trip, we asked a good friend who had lived in France what to see and do at Versailles. She told us her favorite part was the Queen’s gardens. Unfortunately, we missed it as our feet were throbbing after taking a few wrong turns on the grounds of Trianon. Dustin and I barely had enough left in us to make it back through the gardens to Versailles to catch the train back to Paris.

It was an exhausting, but very rewarding day. If you’ve ever been to Versailles, or if your planning on going there I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

 

 

Top 3 Ways to Keep Miles From Expiring

Top 3 Ways to Keep Miles From Expiring

Once you’ve accumulated a few points in various rewards programs, it becomes easy to see them as you do money. This makes sense as they truly are a currency that provides immense value upon redemption. As such, it’s natural to be tempted to treat them as you would money. This makes sense in a lot of areas except one; saving. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to save up points for a specific vacation goal and then use them. But you definitely don’t want to have a long-term points saving plan. This isn’t a 401(k) where the idea is to put your savings on auto pilot, stock them away, and then don’t look at them until your 65. Points don’t earn interest like money in the bank. Add that to the constantly changing rules, and the longer you keep your points, generally the lower value they will provide.

That being said, there are times when you may have a point balance, whether it be bank points or specific travel reward program points, that carry over from year to year. You may sign up for several large bonuses with a certain trip in mind, and then change plans and realize you don’t need the points for the particular trip you are going on. No problem; save them for your vacation next year. Once you get to this point though, you need to familiarize yourself with expiration policies. There’s nothing worse than logging into your American Airlines account after a prolonged period of time thinking that you’ve got 100,000 points to book some round-trip tickets to Hawaii, only to see a zero-point balance.

If you’re reading this post, you have nothing to fear. I’m going to explain the top 3 ways to keep miles from expiring. But first, let’s make sure we know the expiration timelines for all the different rewards programs.

miles expiration

Expiration Timelines

Airline Programs

AirlineExpiration Term
Alaskan Air24 Months
British Airways36 Months
DeltaNever
Flying Blue: Air France/KLM20 Months
Frontier6 Months
JetblueNever
Southwest24 Months
UnitedLast day of the 18th month with no activity
Virgin America18 Months

Hotel Programs

HotelExpiration Term
Club Carlson24 Months
Hilton12 Months
Hyatt24 Months
IHGNever
Marriott24 Months
Starwood12 Months

Bank Programs

Bank ProgramExpiration Term
American Express Membership RewardsNever
Barclay PointsNever
Chase Ultimate RewardsNever
Citi Thank You Points36 Months from the date you earned them

How to Keep Points from Expiring

1. Spend on a Co-Branded Credit Card

Co-branded card

This is by far the easiest and most effective way to keep your points from expiring. Every time you swipe your card it will earn points in your rewards program. This creates activity on the account and resets the expiration clock, even if it’s just for a $1.50 candy bar at the gas station. For example, let’s say I keep my Citi AAdvantage Platinum card in my wallet and use it often. American AAdvantage points have an expiration time frame of 18 months. So, it’s easy to assume that if I earn the points in January of 2017, that my points will expire in July of 2018. However, every time I swipe that Citi card, my timeline resets. So as long as I’m actively using that card, my points are safe for another 18 months.

This is fine and dandy if you’ve only got a couple cards. But once you’ve been doing this for a little while, your butt would really start hurting if you kept all those credit cards in your wallet. Plus, people would look at you funny since you’re always sitting uneven. Any who… shiny squirrel. The point is you’re going to have a stack of credit cards sitting somewhere in a drawer that you don’t keep in your wallet, because you’ve probably gravitated towards your favorite card to do a majority of your spending while you’re not working on a particular sign up bonus. Mine is the Chase Ink Plus; I love Chase Ultimate Rewards.

What I like to do, to make sure that none of my points ever expire, is to just pull that stack out every three to four months and just make sure I make one purchase on each of them. This makes paying bills for that month a bit tedious since I have to remember to login and pay for each card (there are ways to automate this, but I’m a nerd and prefer to consciously know what’s going on with all my accounts). Regardless of how manual or automated the process, doing this every few months ensures that your points will never expire. In addition to that, it also establishes a better relationship with the bank that issued the card. Banks don’t want to see you sign up for a card, spend just to get the bonus, and then never spend on the card again. This will be a benefit when applying for cards with that bank later down the road.

Though the easiest and most efficient, this method does have one drawback; the annual fee. Sometimes it’s worth it to pay the annual fee and keep the card. Especially if it has a rewards program you like, and even better, if it has an anniversary bonus. You can check out a post I wrote on that topic here. Other times it doesn’t make sense to pay the annual fee. Many cards have a no annual fee card to which you can downgrade. The Barclay Arrival Plus for example has a no fee counterpart called the Barclay Arrival. You can call Barclay to request a downgrade once the anniversary rolls around to keep all your points while avoiding the annual fee.

However, when the annual fee comes up and there are no anniversary bonuses or cards available for a downgrade, just part ways with the card. You can then use any of the options below.

2. Shopping Portals

Shopping Portal

Shopping portals allow you to earn points without a credit card by shopping online. Basically, how it works is the shopping portal purchases points from rewards programs to provide an incentive for people to shop on their portal. The retailers that provide the products pay the portal a cut. So as long as the portal owner makes more from the retailer commissions than they pay to the rewards programs, they make a profit. But really the big winner here is the consumer, because it allows them the option to get points without booking a stay/flight, or having to spend money on a co-branded credit card.

An added benefit is that if you do spend with a co-branded credit card, you’ll now double your points. Let’s use the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for example. As of the date of this post, the Chase shopping portal offers 5 points per dollar spent at GNC. If I make a $100 purchase at GNC through the Chase shopping portal with my Chase Ink card, I would rack up 600 Chase Ultimate Reward points. I would get 1 point per dollar that I get just for using the Chase Ink, plus the 5 points per dollar spent through the online shopping portal. Let’s get creative and say I’m working on both Chase Ultimate Reward Points AND AAdvantage points. I could make the same purchase with my Citi AAdvantage or Barclay Aviator card and get 100 AAdvantage points and 500 Chase Ultimate Reward points. As you can see, there are a lot of different programs you can earn rewards with just because there are multiple portals that offer points for every rewards program, and if you add the benefit of making a purchase with the co-branded card, you get those per dollar points as well. The chart below contains many of the popular rewards programs with links to their associated online shopping portal.

Rewards ProgramPoint TypeLink
American AirlinesAAdvantageAAdvantageEshopping
British AirwaysAviosBA
Miles Estore
ChaseUltimate Rewards PointsUltimate Rewards Shopping
CitiThankYou PointsThank You Shopping
DeltaSkymilesSky Miles Shopping
Hawaiian AirlinesHawaiian MilesHawaiian Airlines eMarket
HiltonHHonors PointsHilton HHonors Shop to Earn Mall
SouthwestRapid RewardsRapid Rewards Shopping
UnitedMileagePlus PointsMileage Plus Shopping

3. Dining Rewards

Dining Rewards

This is an often-overlooked method of gaining bonus points. Like shopping portals, most rewards programs have a dining rewards program. Most of them operate similarly, you sign up and register with a credit card. Then whenever you go out to eat, you see which program your restaurant is in, then you use the card you registered in that program to pay the bill.  Depending upon the program and restaurant, you could get a 2 to 3, and even up to 8 points per dollar spent at participating restaurants. Many of them also have signup bonuses if you spend a certain amount at qualifying restaurants in a certain time frame (much like credit card bonuses). Below are the links to sign up for dining rewards programs.

Dining Rewards ProgramPoint TypePoints Per Dollar
Low | High
Sign Up BonusSpending RequirementTime FrameLink
AmericanAAdvantage1 | 5Up to 3,000 Points$25 at first restaurant
then 3 more restaurant visits
30 DaysAAdvantage Dining
DeltaSkyMiles.5 | 5Up to 3,000 (3,500 for Medallion Members)$30 at each of 3 restaurant visits 30 Days
Completion of an online survey is required within 30 days of each visit
SkyMiles Dining
UnitedMileagePlus.5 | 5Up to 3,000$25 at first restaurant
then 3 more restaurant visits
30 DaysMileagePlus Dining
AlaskaAlaska Air Miles.5 | 51,000$30 at one restaurant, and complete a survey that will be emailed to you30 DaysAlaska Mileage Plan
JetblueTrueBlue Points1 | 2N/AN/AN/ATrue Blue Dining
SouthwestRapid Rewards.5 | 3Up to 1,000$25 at each of 3 restaurant visits 30 Days
Completion of an online survey is required within 30 days of each visit
Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining
HiltonHHonors Points2 | 81,000$25 at any restaurant and complete online review within 30 days of dining30 DaysHilton HHonors Dining
IHGRapid Rewards1 | 8Up to 3,000$25 at each of 3 restaurant visits 30 DaysIHG Rewards Club Dine & Earn

Conclusion

With the exception of a few rewards programs, most points will expire one day. It’s important that you know the expiration timelines for all rewards in which you participate so you don’t ever lose them unnecessarily. There are several ways to keep your points from expiring. Three of the best ways I like to use are to spend money on a co-branded card, shop through rewards shopping portals, and participate in dining rewards programs.

What are some of the ways you keep your points from expiring. I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Road Trip Through Italy To Chamonix and Annecy France

Road Trip Through Italy To Chamonix and Annecy France

Our home for the next couple of days was in Annecy France. We just had to figure out how to get there from Nice. We could drive up through France by way of Grenoble or we could swing through Italy. Either way we went, we’d be in a car for the next 6 hours. When we discovered we could pass through Chamonix and eat lunch in Italy it was an easy choice. I mean come on…lunch in Italy? Hells yes! I was sold on this road trip to through Italy to Chamonix and Annecy France the instant Italian food was mentioned.

Road Trip Prepping

The night before, we stopped at a grocery store to grab the essentials for any road trip…snacks! Since we were in Europe, that had to include chocolate. Trust me on this, European chocolate is 10x better than what is in the United States. On our first trip abroad we were more conservative in our chocolate purchases; however, going back Dustin was prepared to fill a small backpack. Which incidentally on our flight back TSA thought could be a bomb, until they had us open the bag for inspection. No joke, if a zombie apocalypse occurred on our way home, our chocolate would last for at least 9 months. The next essential was non-carbonated water. I don’t know how anyone drinks sparkling water, it’s disgusting! In European restaurants, if you order water and don’t ask for still or no gas…carbonated water is what will be served. We also bought an assortment of other snacks/breakfast items as our next stop was an Airbnb instead of a hotel.

The drive from Nice to Savona along E80 snakes along the coastline offering views of the Mediterranean Sea, cobbled terraces, and Italian villages. Since we began our journey early that morning, we watched as the sun rose and peaked its way across the shoreline making the waves sparkle and casting everything in a warm glow. It was hard to leave the coastal drive as we turned north towards Turin.

Turin and Aosta Italy

Aosta

I imagined eating lunch in a small cafe in Turin while enjoying the majestic Alps hovering around us. Reality brought tiny congested streets with towering views of skyscrapers in a large city. Turin is located in northern Italy on the western bank of the Po River. Baroque buildings and old cafes line the boulevards and grand squares. However, with a population of 2.2 million, navigating the narrow one-way streets without causing a massive pile up of mangled cars was proving increasingly difficult. With our butts permanently puckered in the icky traffic, we decided to forego lunch in Turin. Hoping we’d find a more idyllic town to stop in for our Italian meal, we pressed through the traffic and made our way towards the Alps.

Aosta is a town in northern Italy sandwiched in the Alps between France and Switzerland, and exactly what we had been looking for our idyllic lunch. Quite a bit smaller than Turin with a population of 35,000, it drips with remnants of its Roman past. Most notably is the Praetorian Gate, the largest surviving Roman gate, that once served as the city’s main entrance; and the Arch of Augustus. Areas of the valley offer snowcapped views of the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and Gran Paradiso. The valley is home to two major ski resorts, and is dotted with medieval castles.  The old town is dotted with tons of restaurants serving traditional Italian food. I’ve never been disappointed at a restaurant in Italy, so I’m sure you’ll be fine regardless which one you pick. We chose Borgo Antico, and had delicious plates of ravioli bolognese and gnocchi.

Lunch in Aosta

I would love to return to this area to spend a few days exploring. On top of  the beautiful scenery, there’s the food–hundreds of different pastas smothered in sauce and cheese. Yum! Forget about the calories or the bath of insulin you’ll need to digest it, as you’ll walk it all off traversing the cobble stone walkways of this enchanting town.

Chamonix, France

Returning to our car after walking off lunch, we made our way towards Mont Blanc Tunnel. The tunnel is a highway that runs under the Mont Blanc mountain connecting Chamonix, France and the Aosta Valley. A toll is required to pass beneath the rock and dirt of the mountain, stretching across 7 miles (11 km). It’s a pleasant drive, as long as traffic is flowing which it was on this occasion. Approaching and exiting the tunnel offers splendid views, but if you want time to enjoy those views I suggest stopping in Chamonix.

ChamonixAt the base of Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps, lies the charming resort town Chamonix. Celebrated for its skiing, the town offers year-round cable cars to take visitors up to several nearby peaks with panoramic views. In the streets you’ll hear languages from every corner of the globe, and everywhere you look there are sites to admire and pilfer your breath away. Chamonix made it to our must-see list when we happened upon a clip of paragliding in the area. A bit skittish, Dustin asked me if it was something I wanted to do. I debated for about 3 seconds, overcoming my own nerves, before knowing I was going to go paragliding in the Alps. Getting further in our trip planning, we opted to paraglide in Annecy over the Alps instead of at Chamonix since that is where we’d be staying. I loved loved loved paragliding! Even though Annecy and Chamonix are only 62 miles (100 km) apart, paragliding in Chamonix is still on my bucket list.

Chamonix captured our attention for hours as we wandered through the streets, dreaming of owning property there and nearly choking on our macaroons when we saw the real estate prices. Nevertheless, we still had another hour drive before reaching our destination so eventually we had to say goodbye to Chamonix.

Annecy, France

The canyon drive out of Chamonix opens up into the Plateau d’Assy, a beautiful mountain valley that is home to the town of Passy. The descent into the valley is one of the most scenic of the drive. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stop and enjoy this area, as we were off to the lake town of Annecy. Just a couple more canyons and mountain valleys to drive through, and we arrived in Annecy. We’d seen a lot of images of this area as we prepped for our trip, but nothing could prepare us for the beauty of this alluring area. I honestly would love to live here. The emerald color of the lake surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Alps. What could be better?

Annecy and Chamonix

Being a smaller town, we were unable to find any award hotels, so we opted to stay two nights in an Airbnb. To learn more about Airbnb, check out our review here. You’ll also save $40 on your first booking if you do it through our link.

Good Airbnb hosts supply their homes with useful amenities such as kitchen appliances, bikes, and a washer and dryer. This one was no exception. Franck was our host, and his hospitality was second to none. Despite the language barrier, he made sure we had everything we needed and that our stay was a comfortable one. We arrived around dinner time and had no idea where to eat. After we got settled, we went out to grab his bikes and go look for some food. Luckily, he was out in his yard at the time and offered some suggestions. He gave us directions to a lakeside restaurant, Buvette de la Plage de la Brune, and even called a head for us to make reservations.

The restaurant was about a 5-minute bike ride away that offered splendid views of the sun setting over Lake Annecy. We were able to eat outside overlooking the lake. Feeling brave, I ordered a fish plate, which they ended up serving raw. Fortunately, we had wifi and were able to look up how to ask them to cook it. Apparently, this kind of fish would be ruined if they cooked it the way I like it, so they kindly offered to take it back, and prepared a different fish for me that was smothered in a tasty poppy seed sauce. They didn’t even charge us for both, which I thought was above and beyond great customer service. I would have gladly paid for both. I don’t know what kind of fish they ended up serving me, but it tasted great (which is saying something, because I’m pretty picky when it comes to seafood).

Dinner in Annecy

After snagging a couple pictures of the city lights across the lake, we made our way back to our Airbnb to retire for the night. We had a big day of exploring and paragliding the next day, so we needed to get rested up. Have you ever experienced Turin, Aosta, Chamonix, Annecy, or any town we missed in between? We’d love to hear about it in the comments. As always, thanks for reading about our adventures, we hope they inspire you to get out there and make your own.

Nice and The French Riviera

Nice and The French Riviera

Occasionally, plans go to shit. Regardless if it’s your life plan, Friday night plans with friends & family, or the most triumphant travel plan you’ve made for southern France. On this particular occasion it left Dustin and I the chance to explore Nice and the French Riviera.

Original Plans

Verdon Gorge
Photo credit by Paolo Bertinetto

We try to not plan too heavily when traveling, because we like having the flexibility to change it as we go or explore sites deeper than would typically be offered in a group tour setting. However, some planning is a little necessary when using credit card points to book hotel stays, flights, and excursions. We decided to make Nice, France our base for the next few days so we could drift between the city and Verdon Gorge, a river canyon. It was formed by the Verdon River, named for its startling turquoise-green color, and is considered one of Europe’s most breathtaking canyons. Craving some high adventure, we booked a white-water rafting trip on the Verdon River through the Gorge with our extra Chase Reward points. The plan was to meet our guides in Castellane, France early that morning, float the river, and return to Nice to explore the city that evening. Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans. Due to a torrential rain storm that was expected that day, our rafting excursion got canceled. A bit disappointed, I was anticipating a headache trying to get the points we had expended back. However, the rafting company and Chase refunded our points without any cranial damages, much to my relief.

Nice, France

Licking our wounds of disappointment, we decided to check out the old town area of Nice. Being the second largest French city nestled along the Mediterranean coast, Nice is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from Monaco and has historically switched hands between the French and Italians as both countries garnered for power of the strategic seaport. Old town, or Vieux Nice, has narrow winding streets, a jumble of pastel colored houses, busy street markets, a few Catholic churches, and hordes of tourists.

If you aren’t within walking distance to old town, I would recommend seeking parking at the Palais de Justice. It was fairly easy to navigate to, and opens to one of the many cozy squares within Vieux Nice. You’ll also find a nearby pharmacy if you are in need of more sunscreen.

We wandered the compact streets for most of the morning, wondering where the supposed storm was, but enjoying the atmosphere. I mean we couldn’t complain too much sitting in a busy square watching the people around us as we devoured delicious gelato. After we got our fill of the colorful streets, we decided it was time to hit the world-famous French Riviera beach.

French Riviera-Cote d’Azur

Cote d’Azur or the French Riviera is considered the jewel of the Mediterranean coast in France. Don’t get me wrong, the city and coast are gorgeous; but perhaps the sandy beaches of the Algarve in Portugal spoiled us.  In everything I’ve read about the French Riviera, somehow I missed the fact that the beaches are made up of rocks rather than sand. Even still we had an enjoyable experience. We laid our towels out, and were able to get comfortable enough on our bed of rocks to stretch out for an hour or two reading and enjoying the beach. The sea looked less and less inviting with the approaching storm, but Dusty took one for the team and jumped in, we couldn’t come this far and not have at least one of us go for a swim. I’m glad it was him and not me because getting out and walking on the hard rocks with frozen feet didn’t look like an enjoyable experience. Plus, I was having a good hair day and didn’t want to tempt fate by dousing it in salt water.

While we lied on the beach we saw an overlook tower to the East. We decided not to venture that way for a couple reasons. One we couldn’t really tell how far it was and we didn’t know if parking was feasible, and two the storm coming in wasn’t going to make for high visibility. However, had any of those factors not been present, we would have climbed up for a view. We researched it later and it’s actually part of the grounds of the old Nice Castle, where its ruins can also be seen. The walk wouldn’t have been too far, and the stairs up to it look like a reasonable climb. On a clear day, it would totally be worth it.

Soon the gurgling of our stomachs and the threatening storm clouds told us we needed to find some lunch. I have a friend that collects Hard Rock Cafe pins, and when he heard that we were going to France he asked if I had time to stop at a Hard Rock Cafe and purchase a pin for his collection. I confess that I really hadn’t intended to find time for this request. First, I’m not big on souvenirs. I prefer to capture memories through photography as my keepsakes. Secondly, when I travel I want to experience the country or place I’m visiting, so I usually dip into the local cuisine rather than seeking food I can get locally.  My friend was lucky enough that our original travel plans went to shit, the darkening storm clouds promised imminent rain, and a Hard Rock Cafe was located along the Riviera.  We strolled down the Riviera taking in the boardwalk along the coast on our way to the cafe. The rain started drizzling just as we got seated and soon turned into the storm that we had been promised.  The cafe quickly filled with others seeking a respite from the rain, and I was glad we arrived when we did. After eating our lunch and picking up a pin to add to my friend’s collection we delayed heading out into the street hoping the heaviest part of the storm would pass, but it wasn’t relenting. I was still trying to keep my good hair day intact, so armed with a towel stretched across our heads as a make-shift umbrella we decided to brave the rain.

Terrorist Attack Memorial

On our stroll to the Hard Rock Cafe, we quickly passed a memorial for those victims of the Nice terrorist attack. So after lunch, in the rain, with our ridiculous make-shift umbrella we went to explore the memorial. On the evening of July 14, 2016 at least 84 people were killed and 202 injured when a man deliberately drove a truck into the hordes of people celebrating Bastille Day. Mowing people down with the truck and firing gunshots for 1.2 miles down the Promenade des Anglais, the boardwalk we had just strolled down to find some lunch. Officers gave chase, and the driver was killed by police ending the violence. We were visiting Nice in September of 2016 just a month and a half after this horrible tragedy, and it was comforting to see how residents and tourist had come together to honor those lost in the senseless act of one man. The atmosphere was somber, but also hopeful. Our expressions in the picture we took here are more a reaction to our make-shift umbrella than to the memorial. I mean we just had that moment when we flipped the camera on our phone around and realized we’d been walking down the street looking like idiots with our towel umbrella. If I couldn’t laugh at myself, life would be dull.

We drove back to our hotel and spent the evening sauntering down the west coastline until it was dark and we were exhausted.

I can’t wait to go back and explore the Verdon Gorge, but I wouldn’t trade our spontaneous day in Nice along the French Riviera. I’d love to hear your experiences if you’ve spent some time in Southern France or if you have any recommendations for other places to go white water rafting. Happy Adventuring!

 

Touring Sea Caves on The Algarve Coast

Touring Sea Caves on The Algarve Coast

BeachYou couldn’t describe me as a gym rat. In fact, my desire for working out and being healthy ebbs and flows depending on how vain I’m feeling; but I’m pretty sure if I had the endless smooth sands of the Algarve at my feet, I could become an avid runner. Following Roger the Brit’s advice to wake up early and experience the serenity of the coastline in the morning before touring sea caves on the Algarve coast, Dustin and I went for a run. We don’t have a coastline where we live, so it seems like whenever we have the opportunity to run along the beach, we take advantage of it. If you’ve walked enough beaches, you realize that not all sand is created equal. In San Diego the sand is firm but the beach is littered with seaweed, so you have to be careful or you’ll end up tasting the sand instead of running on it. In Hawaii, the sand is so soft that even barefooted I felt like I had weights on my ankles pulling me under the quicksand. The Algarve has the perfect combination of being firm enough that you’re not fighting against the sand to run but soft enough that no shoes are required, and there’s no treacherous seaweed lurking around. Add the picturesque coastline of Portugal to the mix, some kick ass tunes and it’s easy to get lost in a good run. Furthermore, after a good run like that, there is less food guilt…even while on vacation.

I have an unruly tangled mess of hair which Dustin loves, but showering on the days I have to wash my hair is a chore! I don’t know if Portugal just has bad plumbing or if I managed to continuously step on the drain, but I flooded the bathroom nearly everywhere we stayed at least once. Luckily there was an abundance of towels, so I tried to clean up as best as I could before we left on our guided boat tour of the coast.

Chasing Dolphins & Exploring Caves

When we started planning our trip we knew two things we could not miss. 1) the initiation wells in Sintra and 2) the Grutas de Benagil. We had a few Chase points leftover from our initial sign up bonus after using a chunk for a trip to Hawaii. It was enough to sign up for a guided tour of Portugal’s coast that included chasing after dolphins and the caves along the shore. We’ve used Chase points to book excursions on our trips a few times and all of the companies on their travel portal are well informed, professional, and fun. The one we used for this tour was Dream Wave, and it about 7,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points for both of us. If you have Grutas de Benagil“left over” Chase points, I recommend looking at the excursion options for where ever you may be visiting.

Searching for dolphins is like trying to find your keys when you need to leave the house. Sometimes they are readily available and other times your turn your house upside down looking for them before giving up and taking a different vehicle or walking. We were among the lucky few who actually got to see some that day. Usually the tour starts along the coastline exploring the caves and ends searching for dolphins. However, when one of the other boats found a pod of dolphins and signaled our captain we went chasing after the dolphins. We followed the pod for a good hour before returning to the coast and the caves. The shore is spotted with caves and each is unique, but the crown jewel is the Grutas de Benagil or the Benagil Cathedral  named for its neighboring beach and the dome like ceiling that resembles the coffered concrete dome of the Pantheon in Rome with a central opening to the sky. The cave is large enough that it has its own beach; however, the only way to reach it is by sea. When the tour ended, we drove to Praia de Benagil to swim to the Grutas de Benagil.

Swimming to Grutas de Benagil

ArcI am not a strong swimmer. Somehow my childhood pretending to be the Little Mermaid in a bathtub didn’t propel me to learn the art of swimming. Before meeting Dustin and actually learning some of the mechanics, I was surviving on what could only be described as Napoleon Dynamite running underwater. I had recently improved my dynamite skills while training for a sprint triathlon, so I was feeling more confident than I usually would in the the ocean. We’d tried researching how far of a swim it was from the beach to the cave with little success. After seeing the distance from our boat tour, I was sure it was less than the 350 yards I had trained for the triathlon and I really wanted to see the Benagil Cathedral from inside, so with a 50% chance of survival I dove in.

The swim took 5-7 minutes and although the current offered some challenges, it was completely worth the effort. If you’d rather not take the 50% chance, you can rent a paddle board or kayak to cross the distance.

 

Ponta de Piedade

Ponte de PiedadeWe took a short jaunt over to Lagos from Praia de Benagil  to explore Ponta de Piedade,  a group of rock formations along the coastline of Lagos. The honey colored rocks emerge from the aquamarine water and offer the perfect perch to enjoy a spectacular sunset. We spent the rest of the afternoon discovering the nooks and crannies and climbing from the top of the formations to the shoreline.  If you’re feeling peckish, stop at Sol Nascente and grab a bifana or some piri piri chicken.

It’s a brisk 55 min drive back to the hotel and after starting the day running then floundering in the water and hiking up and down rocks we were famished. Taking

Alambique

Roger the Brit’s advice we ate at the Alambique. The cuisine is a mix of Mediterranean, Portuguese, and European so there is something for every palate. The al fresco dining atmosphere is lovely, but don’t forget the bug spray or the mosquitoes will be dining on you. By the end of our meal, both Dusty and I were wearing our napkins around our legs like pencil skirts to stave off the horde of vampirous pests.

That wraps up day two in the Algarve. Be sure to let me know if you have any questions in the comments. If you’ve been to Grutas de Benagil, I’d love to hear your experience.