Our 24 Day Vacation To Belize

The best sunset I've ever seen. The picture doesn't do it justice.
The best sunset I’ve ever seen. The picture doesn’t do it justice.

That’s right, dear reader, I’m finally writing the Belize post.  I’ve been hinting and teasing about the trip for so long that even my momma thinks that my mind is gone I bet some of you thought I’d never get around to it.  Well here it is in all its glory.

Actually, it’s only part one.  The post got up to 1300 words before I even said anything about the finances, so I figured I’d just make it two separate posts.

This post is about the trip and what we did.  The next post will be the financial porn: the exact breakdown of how much we spent and what we spent it on.

We used Airbnb to book all of our lodging (if you use this link to sign up, you and I both get $25 in travel money.  Woo!). We had never used them before, but it was super easy and much more cost efficient than booking hotels.

Belize City

The first stop on our itinerary was Belize City.  The international airport is only about 15 minutes away from Belize City, and it’s a good sized city, so we thought we’d start the trip by spending a few days in the bustling metropolis.

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Striking A Balance

Balance
Broccoli and gin balance each other out, right?

I just got done reading a book called Doing More With Less by Bruce Piasecki.  In it there were some quotes from W.B. Yeats, and they reminded me of financial independence.  Maybe that’s a sign that I’m a crazy person, but I’ll assume it’s because I’m super awesome.  Here’s the first one,

“There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them…”

This brings to mind people who post on personal finance forums or reddit and say something along the lines of, “I really hate my job, but now that I never go out and do anything that I used to love I only have 9.5 years to financial independence.” They are totally in love with the future.

If you’ve spent much time reading about personal finance on the internet, you’ve met these kinds of people.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting serious about your finances and buckling down.  There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to a future that’s better than your current situation, but it’s important to remember that the journey is part of the fun.  The future is sexy, but nothing is more sexy than the present sitting next to you.

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What We Do

Your brain
This is your brain on finance

I’ve been doing some thinking about how much information I share on this blog.  I am trying to remain anonymous since I share our net worth here every month.  Really, I only blog as a means of keeping track of how our finances are doing, and as a way to keep me thinking about financial progress.

Because of this I haven’t yet told you readers what Mrs. Dragon and I do for a living. It just seemed unnecessary and kept one more layer on anonymity between us.  But there are some things I’ve shared on this blog that don’t really make sense if you put them together.

1.) I’m in the first year of a new job, but I just took a 24 day vacation to Belize.  There is no way I could have accrued that many vacation days in such a short amount of time.

2.) Mrs. Dragon and I both worked overtime this summer and it REALLY inflated our paychecks, as seen in this Hoard update. That must be a lot of overtime.

3.) That’s really it, but don’t you think lists look better in threes?

So, what kind of new job gives you a ton of overtime in your first summer, then turns around and gives you 24 days off in a row?

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The Hoard: August 2015

The Dragon's Hoard

Every good dragon has a hoard.  You know.  The collection of gold, jewels, and other valuables that the dragon guards in his or her cave.  For me, The Hoard is what I call my assets.  The collection of stocks, bonds, and other income producing assets that Mrs. Dragon and I have collected thus far.

Mythological fire breathers have to protect their hoard from knights seeking glory, wizards wanting power, etc.  Real-world FIRE breathers have more mundane, but very real dangers to their own hoards: the tax man, the cable company, lifestyle inflation, high-fee brokers, and many more.

This is one post in a series that documents my progress towards financial independence.

You might recall that I don’t include our primary residence in the assets (it doesn’t produce income) and I don’t include our primary mortgage against the assets.  If we had a rental house, I would include it in both parts of the equation, but I’ll address the primary residence in a separate category.

I do not differentiate between tax-advantaged accounts and taxable ones in the number for The Hoard.  Assets are assets.

We use the excellent (and free!) service Personal Capital to keep track of how The Hoard is coming along.  It lets you view all your accounts on a single homepage for a convenient snapshot of your financial life.  It is a top-notch service.  Highly recommended.

Mrs. Dragon and I want $600,000 in liquid assets and a paid-off house to consider ourselves financially independent.

How are we currently doing?

The current market value of the hoard is $92,608 (vs last month’s $79,035).  This is about 15.4% of our $600,000 goal.

Primary residence: The mortgage is $96,968  (vs last month’s $97,227), which means it’s about 1.05% paid off.

Hell yeah!  Another huge leap in the right direction.  As mentioned before, we’ve been getting some extra hours at work and that is represented in these numbers.  But I’ll take a $13,573 improvement any month I can get it!

We’re also veeeery close to reaching the point where the Hoard is bigger than the mortgage.  Of course, that won’t really mean anything, but it’s still nice to know that our liquid assets are worth more than the debt.

Not that it’s that simple, really. Most of the Hoard is in tax-deferred accounts, so it would be a huge bitch to get access to all of it at once.  Not that we want to.

It’s also apparent that barring any huge catastrophes we are going to eclipse $100,000 in a month or two.  That is truly incredible. As I mentioned in the last update, I was thinking 100k was a stretch goal for this year.  The new stretch goal is 115k.  If we can buckle down on our expenses, we might just eek it out.  Either way we’ve made some major progress on our goals this year and I am pretty pumped up about it.

In other news, we eclipsed 1% paid on the mortgage.

Do you think we are on track for FIRE by February 2025?  How is your own progress coming?

Expenses: July 2015

ExpensesExpense report!  Since I’m a total voyeur for finance, these types of details are exactly the kind that I love to read on other people’s blogs.

Don’t get me wrong though, these numbers are primarily written for me and Mrs. Dragon.  Every good FIRE breather knows that to be successful, you have to track your expenses. You have to track them like a shark tracks blood in the water.

How else will you know when your Hoard is big enough?

Without further ado, here are the numbers for July (rounded to the nearest dollar):

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The Travel Hacking Experiment: Part IV

Half-Moon Caye, Belize
Half-Moon Caye

I’ve you’ve been reading the blog, then you know that I’ve been doing a Travel Hacking Experiment.  As of the last update, I had collected all my points and just needed to put some of those bad boys to good use.

I gave you a teaser in the last update that I spent the points on a vacation to Belize.  It was a truly incredible vacation.  Mrs. Dragon and I had a blast and I managed to get her out of her comfort zone on several occasions.  Score!

I’ll be giving you a more detailed account of the vacation experience in an upcoming post, but in this post I thought I would share exactly how we used the points that we accrued via credit card bonuses.

For those who aren’t up to speed, here’s a list of the points we earned from four credit cards I signed up for back in March:

  • 100,000 American Airlines AAdvantage points
  • 50,000 Hilton HHonors points
  • 50,000 British Airways Avios points

So, how did we use these points to lower the cost of our vacation?

The Flight

First things first, we needed to get to Belize.  Of course, the main reason to get airline miles is for free/discounted planes tickets, right?

We booked two round trip tickets from our hometown to Belize City, Belize for 70,000 AAdvantage points.  You still have to pay taxes/fees on award flights and we paid these to the tune of $67.95 per ticket, or $135.90 total.

I looked up the same tickets to compare the price if we had just paid cash and it was about $900 total (turns out I didn’t write the exact number down anywhere, hence the estimate, whoops!). In summary,

  • We paid: 70,000 AAdvantage points and $135.90
  • Cash alternative: $900
  • Money saved on plane tickets: $764.10

Lodging

We used points several times to cover a couple nights here and there throughout our trip.  Mrs. Dragon is sort of a nervous traveler, so we decided it would be best to spend our first few nights in a new country in a proper hotel.  Most of our lodging was booking via Airbnb, but I’ll talk more about that in the post that focuses on the trip.

Balcony view
Killer view from Pickwick balcony

We decided to book two nights at The Best Carribean Pickwick Hotel in downtown Belize City.  I didn’t know this in the beginning but you can book hotels and car rentals using AAdvantage points in addition to flights.  Who knew? OK, maybe a lot of people, but I sure didn’t.  What a pleasant surprise.

The cost for two nights at the Pickwick was 26,200 AAdvantage points.  If we had just booked the hotel otherwise it would have been $129/night and that doesn’t include taxes.  So let’s just call it $135 a night for a total of $270.

Now, we might not have chosen such a swanky hotel if we had been paying cash, but seeing the Caribbean Sea from our balcony was pretty sweet.

Later in our trip we headed to San Pedro in Ambergris Caye and stayed three nights at the Royal Caribbean Resort.  Not a fancy place, but we got our own beach side cabana.

Beach side cabana
Royal Caribbean Resort

The cost in cash would have been about $80/night including taxes, or $240 total.  Instead, we dipped into AAdvantage points again and booked the room for 33,800 points.

On our return flight to the states we had an overnight layover in Dallas, which would normally have meant paying for a hotel room.  However, we had 50,000 HHonors points burning a hole in our figurative pockets.

We ended up booking a night at the Homewood Suites near DFW.  Free shuttle to/from the airport, free wifi, free breakfast, what’s not to like?  We originally booked a king bed suite, but it turned out we needed an extra bed (more details in the post about the vacation).  So they upgraded us for free to a two room suite.

Seriously, that Homewood Suites was on their A-game.  We had a very good experience with them, but I digress.

That particular hotel is Category 5 and we booked our night for 30,000 HHonors points.  Normally, the hotel rents for around $130/night.  Again, we might have chosen a cheaper one if paying cash, but may as well compare apples to free apples, amiright?

To summarize,

  • We paid: 60,000 AAdvantage points, 30,000 HHonors points, and exactly $0 for six nights of hella comfortable lodging.
  • Cash alternative: $640
  • Money saved on lodging: $640

The Wrap-Up

We ended up spending 130,000 AAdvantage points and 30,000 HHonors points and saving $1404.10.

I can hear what some of you may be thinking, “Is that good value for those points?” or “I would have gotten better value than that.”

Here’s the thing, it’s fine to think about spending points in a vacuum, but I was on a real trip with real expenses and these points saved me money.  I don’t really care that much if it was good value or not relative to staying out in the middle of bumble fuck for 10,000 points.

By the water
Mrs. Dragon doesn’t care about your efficiency

Also, if you actually could have spent those points better, please share the knowledge!  I’m a self-labelled beginner when it comes to travel hacking, and I’ll take any pointers I can get!

The observant reader might notice that I only earned 100,000 AA points, but spent 130,000 points.  Fair enough.  I spent ~$3500 on the card which earned me 3500 points, and I’ve been an AAdvantage member for a while, and had accrued some the old-fashioned way… by flying.  This pretty much wiped me out as my current AA balance now sits at a measly 2,622 points.  But I regret nothing… NOTHING!

Seriously, this trip was badass and it really did save us a lot of money using all these points to help defray costs.

You might be wondering how much this trip did cost in total.  Well, lucky for you I’ll be spilling all the financial details and plenty of pictures in the post that describes the trip.

And that, dear reader, is how I spent the points I earned from Travel Hacking.  Easy come, easy go, eh?  And I’ve still got the Avios points and some HHonors points in my back pocket.  Not too shabby for the miniscule amount of effort I had to put in.

Thus concludes the Travel Hacking Experiment.  I’d definitely call it a success and plan to continue getting new cards for the sign-up bonuses.  But I think I will limit myself to just a single card at the time from now on.

How do you think I did?  Is there anything you would have done differently?

Other posts in this series:

A Beginner’s Thoughts on Travel Hacking

The Travel Hacking Experiment: Part I

The Travel Hacking Experiment: Part II

The Travel Hacking Experiment: Part III

Our 24 Day Vacation To Belize

Financial Details of Our Belize Trip