19.1.17

how our family travels for FREE (+ yours can too!)

Over the years our little family has been on some insane trips, thanks to free flights, redeemed with Aeroplan points.


We did France with two under two, Copenhagen and Amsterdam was our first trip as a family of five, then Stockholm and Florence the year after, and last summer went to Iceland! This summer we are planning to visit Switzerland and Austria, and as always, the flights will be fully paid for by points!


I've sent many of you over to my husband's one-post blog that he created for the sole purpose of explaining in depth how we do it, so you can as well. I figured it was more simple for me to publish it all here to save you the step. So here's the info (written by Brad)! Feel free to ask any questions below and Brad will reply to your comments as he has time. And if you've found this helpful, we'd love if you would use the links in this post to sign up for the cards, as we'll get some bonus points for referring you. Thanks guys! Happy travels!



Hi everyone, Brad here. The process is actually pretty simple. It involves applying for certain credit cards which offer disproportionately high amounts of Aeroplan miles as a sign-up bonus, redeeming the miles for free flights, and cancelling the cards.

(If you don't already have an Aeroplan membership you can get one here (it's free).



FIRST THINGS FIRST

The first thing to do is to check your credit score. Every credit card application you make lowers your score by about 5-7 points. Now, that’s out of a total of 900 possible points, so it’s not a huge number, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

Some other quick thoughts on credit for those interested:
  • A score represents a moment in time and can change based on your behaviour.
  • Missed or late payments or lots of maxed out credit accounts will lower your score.
  • The best way to increase your score is to pay back debts on time and consistently.
  • Scores typically range from 400 to 900, and good scores are usually 660 and higher; anything over 750 is considered excellent. So whether it’s 750 or 850 doesn’t really make a difference. For an institution like a bank or credit union looking at your credit, anything over 725 is a no-brainer.
  • If it might help allay your fears, I don't know how many credit cards I've applied for in the past few years, and Equifax tells me my score is 759.

The credit bureaus don’t make it easy to find, but here's a great way to get your credit score for free:

www.borrowell.com/free-credit-score

When you get your report, make sure all the information is accurate. If your report shows loans or credit cards that you didn’t apply for, someone may have used your identity to apply for credit or the credit bureau may have incorrect information about your credit use. Either way, you’ll want to tell the credit bureau about the discrepancy immediately.

You will need to apply for two credit cards for a return flight from Canada to Europe, and only one for closer destinations like Mexico or Hawaii.

After our most recent trip, a lot of people were asking me for info on how we pulled this off, so I figure if I can make this as straight-forward and easy-to-follow as possible, I can spare you guys the most painful part of the process: sifting through endless forum posts trying to get a straight answer to my questions!


STEP 1 - GETTING YOUR POINTS

In order to rack up the necessary points for your dream trip, you have to follow these steps:
  1. Apply for a given card
  2. Meet the minimum spending requirements for the card
  3. Wait for the points to appear in your account (can be up to 6 weeks)
  4. Cancel the card before the annual fee kicks in (these cards have annual fees of anywhere from $150 to $250 - the first year is free and is the key to this whole plan so do not forget to cancel them!)
These steps will lead you through applying for various American Express credit cards, whose points are transferable 1:1 to Aeroplan.

So when I refer to 'points' throughout this, I'm referring to either Aeroplan points or Amex points, since they are essentially the same with the same value.

Notice I said Aeroplan. If you're using Air Miles, I would strongly encourage you to cash out and use Aeroplan instead. Aeroplan points are MUCH easier to accumulate and are easier to redeem for flights.

Links to Credit Cards to Apply For:

Ok, start dreaming: where do you want to go? Figure out how many points you'll need, and then apply for the cards to make it happen.

Anywhere in North America: 25,000 points
Mexico: 40,000 points
Hawaii: 45,000 points
Europe: 60,000 points
All for round-trip flights!

(You can see the whole award chart here.)

Now let's take the first step: both of these cards are fantastic ones to apply for, because they offer a huge amount of points, and they waive the fee for the first year:

AMERICAN EXPRESS GOLD REWARDS CARD – 25,000 points

AMERICAN EXPRESS BUSINESS GOLD REWARDS CARD – 40,000 points
  • This is an amazing offer - the best I've ever seen for a free card. Here's what you need to know: You need to include a business name - but it doesn't need to be an officially registered business. It can be anything that allows you to make money - even if it's not currently doing so.
  • For example, I have sold the odd used book on Amazon. So I used my Amazon selling name as my "business" name and it worked perfectly. An eBay seller account would work as well. Have a blog? You can use that. It's really flexible, and 100% legal. (I checked with Amex.)
So with just these two cards, you've got yourself a free plane ticket to Europe!

A Short Cut

If this seems like a lot of work, there is a short-cut. Instead of having to apply for and track several cards, you can apply for this beast of a card: For what seems to be a limited time, the Amex Business Platinum card gives you a whopping 75,000 points (along with a ton of other perks, like airport lounge access!).

AMERICAN EXPRESS BUSINESS PLATINUM CARD - 75,000 Amex points ($399 annual fee)

This is a ridiculous amount of points, way more than enough for Europe. In fact, it’s actually enough points to get you to Japan and just shy of enough for Australia! So sure, paying $399 isn’t for everyone, but consider that you're paying $399 to go to Japan! Seen that way it's actually an incredible deal. (And if you follow my instructions below for redeeming the points, your taxes should only be around $120).


STEP 2 - MEETING THE SPENDING REQUIREMENT

You'll notice that these cards require that you use them to spend a certain amount of money before they'll dish out the points. For the Amex Gold card, it's $1500 in three months, and for the Amex Business Gold card, it's $5000 in three months.

Which is definitely a good chunk of change. If you're wondering how to hit the minimum spending requirement, here's some ideas:
  • This is obvious, but put everything you can on your credit cards. Sometimes people seem reluctant to do this, but as long as you pay your bills promptly, it’s a no-brainer.
  • Many local businesses won't take Amex, but almost everything online will: Paypal, Airbnb, Amazon, etc.
  • Donations: if you give monthly to an organization, an option is to cancel the donations for a few months and simply make a one-time donation. So you cancel your $100/month donation for 6 months and make a $600 donation. (But don’t forget to restart the monthly donations after!)
  • Offer to put big purchases for a group on your card. A friend of ours put some big costs for his brother's wedding on his card, his brother paid him back, and he was able to hit his minimum spend in one shot!

Converting Your Points

Since you’re working towards an Aeroplan flight reward, you need to convert your American Express points to Aeroplan miles (they transfer 1:1). Thankfully, this is super easy. Go to the Rewards section after you log in to Amex, and find the link for "Rewards", and then “Transfer my points.”

The conversion from Amex points (called Membership Rewards points) to Aeroplan is instantaneous – however, you must first register your Aeroplan account, and that can take a few days. So plan accordingly!


STEP 3 - SPENDING YOUR POINTS

Now here’s the fun part: booking your flight!

But wait. You’ve probably heard about the dreaded taxes that accompany a reward flight booking. It’s true. And really, it’s ridiculous that a “free” flight isn’t actually free. In particular, there is often a “fuel surcharge” levied which can be $500-$600 alone. So the fees and taxes can amount to almost the full price of the actual flight! Which would mean this was all a colossal waste of time.

But I learned of an ingenious workaround: different airlines charge different levels of fees and taxes.

And some airlines charge very little! Want to know which ones? Here is a list of some of the airlines that you can book with your Aeroplan points in order to avoid the most obscene of the reward flight surcharges:
  • United
  • Swiss
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Croatia Airlines
  • Egypt Air
  • Air China
  • Scandinavian Airlines
  • Air New Zealand
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • LOT Polish Airlines
We paid about $150 in taxes for each of our round trip flights to Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Considering those flights were supposed to cost over $1200 each, I’ve never paid $150 with a bigger smile on my face.

There are two ways to redeem your Aeroplan points for a flight:
  1. Online through your Aeroplan account page
  2. Over the phone with an Aeroplan agent
Most of the time, you should be able to find your preferred flight on the Aeroplan website. But sometimes you may need to call Aeroplan to book it. (Note that they charge $35 for this. Which is why it’s always preferable to find it on Aeroplan’s website if you can. But if you’re doing a convoluted routing, it’s well worth the charge.)


STEP 4 - PROFIT!

That's it! A few more tricks to mention...

Adding a stopover

You know how when you’re flying you often have a stopover in some random airport for a bunch of hours? Wouldn't it be cool if instead of a random airport it could be a place you actually wanted to visit? And instead of 4 hours, you had a week? Well, a little known fact is that you can intentionally add a stopover your trip.

Different airlines have different policies, but generally, you can add a stopover on both your outbound and inbound flights. So essentially, you are getting completely FREE flights to new destinations.

We were limited by vacation time constraints, so we only added one, but here’s how we did it:

Outgoing flight: YUL-IAD-CPH
Return flight: CPH-AMS-ORD-YUL

So on our return flight, technically we are flying Copenhagen to Montreal. But we forced a stopover in Amsterdam...which lasted 8 days. After 8 days, our return voyage resumed, and we flew to Chicago (mandatory stopover because there’s no AMS to YUL direct) en route to Montreal.

This is probably one of the coolest tricks out there. If you have the time, and if your destinations are considered ‘valid’ (in other words, you can’t fly Toronto to Belfast with a Shanghai stopover, as it exceeds the 'Maximum Permitted Mileage') you can almost literally fly around the world for no additional cost.

Know Your Perks

On top of everything else, these credit cards come with some really cool perks. I mentioned the lounge access with the Amex Business Platinum card already. Other things include free travel health insurance, trip cancellation insurance, and, my personal favorite: delayed baggage insurance ($1000 spending spree if your bag is delayed for more than 6 hours! This happened to Em and I once and we got to spend $1000 each in Casablanca!)

Timeline

One last helpful bit of info would probably be: how much time does this all take? How far out do I need to start?

Amazingly, finding flight availability was not a problem at all. If you’ve ever heard that flight rewards need to be booked a year in advance, that’s totally bogus. Airlines constantly release new availability depending on sales and route popularity, so if your desired routing is not available, just check back the next day.
Here’s what I did recently:

Jan 2015: applied for the cards
Early Feb 2015: started putting money on the cards to hit the minimum spend requirements
Early Apr 2015: hit the minimum spends
Early May 2015: all points received – began searching for flights
May 17 2015: booked the flights (Aug 10 departure)

So really, it wasn’t a painfully long process. If you’re the cautious type, you can always just give yourself more time and start earlier.

Note: Amex says it can take up to 8 weeks to credit your account with your points. So plan accordingly. But if you get into a tight spot (like I did) you can ask them to please pretty please expedite the process. They did for me.


Thanks Brad! I hope this was helpful to you guys! We love traveling and aim to go somewhere new every year, but who has the budget for that? Not us... without these crazy tricks. The cost of an average European vacation for us is akin to going to South Carolina or Florida for a week and a half... except we are in Europe for 2-3 weeks! When flights are free and you cook most of your own meals, and if you stick to cities, negating the need for a rental car, your European Once-In-A-Lifetime Vacation is actually really realistic.

Congratulations if you made it through this textbook of a blog post! I know it's long, but this info is really helpful and has allowed our family to have countless priceless experiences, so I wanted to share :)

Thanks again for using the links in this post, and don't forget to mention any questions for Brad in the comments below. Bon Voyage!

16.1.17

how to make store-bought cake + icing taste like the real thing

Real talk? By Oli's birthday I was done with baking cakes. I love baking, but starting in late August, we have a birthday every 2-4 weeks in our family until Oli's at the end of October, and by then I'm kind of crawling to the finish line.


I was at the grocery store a couple days before Oli's birthday and I saw that both boxed birthday cake and icings were on sale for $1.99 each. I mean, common'. So I grabbed one box of cake mix and two icings, and with a few sneaky tweaks, it didn't taste very store bought at all! See, I'm not just turning up my nose at boxed cake mix because I think baking from scratch is everything. There are plenty of store-bought options that I swear always taste better than my home made attempts (gravy and Hollandaise sauce, for example). The thing is, I really just don't like the taste of store-bought cake and icing. It tastes flat and artificial to me. Like overly sweet, with no other defining flavours. Enter: the hacks.

Shape: Traditional box cake bakes into two 8-9 inch pans, a 9x13 pan, or cupcakes. I made thinner cake rounds in three 9 inch pans and did a triple layer cake so it already looked a little different. These are my favourite cake pans, fyi!

Cake: The directions state to add three egg whites, water, and oil. I add full eggs and milk instead of whites and water. It gives the cake a richer taste and texture. For flavour, you'll want to add two teaspoons of vanilla no matter what end flavour you're going for. Adding citrus zest or loose leaf tea are both amazing ways to naturally infuse flavour into a bland cake, too!

Icing: I bought the classic white icing as well as the cream cheese flavoured icing. Honestly, they both tasted almost identical - overly sweet and artificial. They're not made with real butter so there's no salt to balance the hyper-sweetness. I add several pinches of salt and more vanilla extract. Almond extract is great too. You can add the zest or loose leaf tea right into the icing as well! I love chamomile or earl grey icing!

Fun toppings: I got these neat gold sprinkles and added a few and then we topped his cake with a Lego man from the set we bought him for his birthday! We got him the Lord of the Rings Lego set off Kijiji (where we get all of our Lego because the regular prices are bonkers!) so this little dwarf was his clue for his gift :)

Some occasions call for a legit homemade cake, but sometimes you've got to cut corners and that's aiiight. 

12.1.17

BREAKFAST DONUTS!

You guys know I love donuts! Ever since I bought my donut pan, I've been using it for basically any recipe I would normally use to make quick breads, muffins, and cakes with. Banana bread, birthday cake, bran muffins... all way more fun on donut form!


I made up a recipe for breakfast donuts (!!!) the other day when I was looking for something to do with the shavings of carrot and ginger left behind after making a fresh juice. They are healthy, filling, and fun to eat! Topped with thick yogurt instead of icing, they probably won't break any New years resolutions, unless you resolved to eat boring breakfasts, in which case I can't help you ;) 



BREAKFAST DONUTS

Wet Ingredients
3/4 carrot and ginger shavings
1 banana
Juice of 1 clementine
2 eggs
1/4 C coconut oil
1/4 C brown sugar
1/2 C yogurt

Dry Ingredients
1 TB baking powder
1 C flour
1/4 C oats
  • Preheat oven to 350 and get our your donut pan. ***If you don't have one, you can buy them at Amazon and Well.ca(These are affiliate links, so if you choose to buy a donut pan, I'd love if you'd use the links in this post! Thanks for your support!)
  • Mix together all wet ingredients, in any order
  • Mix together all dry ingredients in any other
  • Slowly incorporate mixes together, and bake at 350 for 20 minutes
  • When cooled completely, top with yogurt (I like Greek or 2% full-fat yogurt!) and fun toppings such as sprinkles or salted pumpkin seeds. Raisins or blueberries would be fun, too!
 

11.1.17

marriage and real love songs

Eight years into marriage, there are a lot of things that are way better than in our newlywed days, but honestly, also a lot of things that we still struggle with that we thought by now would be distant memories. We're still childish and selfish. We can still be petty and unforgiving. We still fight, often. We still have to put in actual effort to sustain a healthy marriage, we can't just go on auto-pilot.


A decade ago, I naively thought marriage would be easy and constant fun and laughs - a sleepover party forever! I'm sure there are blog posts out there that you could read that would describe marriage that way, so if that sounds more therapeutic to you I encourage you to track them down, but it wouldn't be true for me to write one. Human relationships, even with the most compatible, loving, Godly partner, are messy.

There are few conversations that I love more or find more soothing than ones with fellow married friends about the challenges of marriage but it's utter worthiness despite the tough parts. I think back to boisterous conversations with one pair of married pals in the Fall when blurting out "MARRIAGE!" was the only helpful explanation to our current difficulty of accepting our partner's faults and our own hang ups. It's hard, we're sinful, it's worth it, but it's not easy. Marriage! Another such conversation with some friends from Toronto occurred over the Holidays as we four talked about how we still fight (a lot) eight years into marriage (they were married just a few months before us), but how our fights are fairer and shorter, and that's progress worth cheers-ing to.



Which brings me to real love songs and my favourite one, by CHVRCHES.

I'll be a thorn in your side
'til you die
I'll be a thorn in your side
for always...

Now that's a real love song. It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be worthy and beautiful and we're in it to win it.