What I learned from our “almost free” vacation

Back in June I wrote a post about “How to get free summer travel.” I’d arranged a 5-day trip with my daughter to the Pacific Northwest using a variety of rewards programs. The trip, which we took over Labor Day weekend, was a heck of a lot of fun. Like most vacations, it wound up costing a bit more than planned but I also learned a few things.


Re-price your reservations before you go. I checked both hotel and car reservations a few days beforehand to see if prices had dropped. They hadn’t at the Doubletree in Portland, which was in fact sold out. But the rates at Enterprise car rental fell like a rock. Plus, Enterprise emailed me a last-minute 10% off coupon for being part of its frequent traveler program. My cost for the two-day car rental went from over $100 to just $37. I love that.

Don’t try to make a same-day connection on Amtrak. We took the sleeper car up from Los Angeles, and the train fell waaaaay behind schedule–five hours, in fact. That was good news for us, since we got to see some gorgeous scenery around the California-Oregon border that would normally pass by in the dark. Passengers who were trying to make a connection to the Empire Builder, the train that goes from Portland to Chicago, weren’t so happy. They had to get off in Klamath Falls and ride several hours on a bus to meet the other train. If I were to book an Amtrak trip that involved a connection, I’d try to arrange it so that we had an overnight stay in between.

Portland’s public transportation is awesome. There was a light-rail MAX station right outside our hotel, and it took us everywhere we wanted to go while we were in town, including the Saturday Market and the zoo. A day pass for an adult was just $5. Parking at the zoo alone would have been $4, and a hassle, since there are limited spaces. When it was time to leave, I took the red line out to the airport to pick up our rental car–easy peasy.

Check out the artist/farmers markets. Speaking of the Saturday Market: I was blown away by many of the vendors there. This weekend market along the river features some really skilled craftsman offering handmade stuff at reasonable prices. I stocked up for Christmas.

Splurge a little. My daughter’s a huge fan of the Great Wolf Resort and its indoor water park south of Olympia. The rates in the summer can be steep, but my sister and I decided to split the cost of a Kid Cabin room with bunk beds. That way, we got to spend more time together, our kids had a ball and we were each out of pocket $160 rather than $320.

Peach fritter with cream cheese? Might want to skip that. My friend Michelle Rafter suggested we meet at VooDoo Donuts for a treat. Yes, the long wait was worth it, but no, I don’t think I’d order the peach fritter again–it was almost as big as my head. Next time it’ll be the maple bacon donut, for sure.

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  1. I disagree with the “no same-day Amtrak connections” recommendation. It may be the right choice in some situations, but it’s not a hard-and-fast rule.

    If you’re booking the trip with Amtrak Guest Rewards points, for example, you MUST make all same-day connections, or else you must book each leg as a separate reward trip. If you’re going from Los Angeles to Portland, Portland to Chicago, that’s a single 2-zone trip if you connect the same day, but it’s a 1-zone trip PLUS a 2-zone trip if you schedule an overnight stay in between.

    The people who were put on the bus at Klamath Falls made their connecting train, right? Worse things can happen than spending several hours on a bus instead of a train. In fact, you could find yourself spending several hours on a bus even if you did everything “right” with your reservation. When I took the westbound Empire Builder earlier this summer, I was put on a bus from Spokane to Seattle, because the train was running so late (due to a derailed freight train in North Dakota) that they had to turn it around in Spokane for the next day’s eastbound train to have any hope of being on time.

    I called Amtrak customer service about the delay, and I was given a $150 voucher for future travel – even though I’d paid for the original trip with points rather than cash. The people who were on your train could do the same. (So, for that matter, could you. They might not give you anything, but it can’t hurt to ask.)

    And if your incoming train had been running so late that the connecting passengers had no hope of making their connection, Amtrak would have paid for their hotel for the night and put them on the next day’s train.

    With any mode of travel, there’s a risk of the unexpected happening. With Amtrak, that risk seems to be pretty high these days, so if you’re on a tight schedule, they might not be the best choice. But they also take care of their passengers pretty well, too.

    • Thanks, Johanna! Very good points. When you’re using reward programs, you often have less flexibility to set up travel exactly the way you’d like. And nobody who’s impatient should ride Amtrak. J

  2. Sadly, I ate my entire apple fritter, which was the same size as the peach one.

    Last spring, my son and I booked a mini-sleeper on the Empire Builder from Portland to West Glacier, Montana. I’d experienced Amtrak delays on previous trips, but this one ran like clockwork, leaving and arriving on time. The sleeping car attendant was helpful, the room was clean and the food was good! We’d definitely do it again. I would, however, get off 30 min. earlier in Whitefish to have more rental car companies to choose from; in West Glacier, there’s one, and it’s not cheap.

    Michelle Rafter