September 2009 Archives

Well, this one sorta miraculously fell together.  For a quick few days this November we'll be in Churchill, Manitoba to check out some Polar Bears.  Then later in life after they've all drowned, we'll be able to tell our grandchildren: "Back in our day, we had Polar Bears…"  And then we'll all have a cry together.

Anyway, the rest of this post is all about the logistics behind the booking of this trip as I'm sorta proud of it.  So that's a warning to most that this is going to get boring real quick…

In an economy where people are actually employed, these trips cost several thousand per person and are booked solid with old people and photographers.  To view the polar bears in Churchill you cruise around in these big ol' Tundra Buggies. 

Courtesy: http://www.discover-the-world.co.uk/

No chance we'd be paying those sort of prices, though.  There are three parts to the puzzle to see Churchill polar bears independently/cheaply:

  • Tundra Buggy reservations – sent an email and got a list of available dates for independent travelers.  The only downside was that they didn't have any consecutive days.  So we'd only be able to do one day out on the tundra.  Better than nothing, I'd say.
  • Motel reservations – combed the internets for email addresses for all the lodging in Churchill.  The number of rooms in Churchill is actually very small, so I got a totally mixed bag of responses regarding availability and dates.
  • Flights – you can fly any number of major airlines to Winnipeg and then you can hop Calm Air up to Churchill.  This Winnipeg to Churchill flight alone is $1,000 USD round-trip per person.  (of course we didn't pay that much!)

End of October through early November is when you want to be in Churchill, so after looking at Buggy and motel availability I was happy that November 4 turned out to be the sweet spot.  Also, keep in mind I started this process in August—so I wasn't really planning too far ahead.

Flights from Seattle to Winnipeg were a cinch.  I snagged award tickets on Northwest with my first choice of dates and flight times.

Now how to get those $1,000 Calm Air tickets on the cheap?  Brace yourself.  The only avenue to redeem tickets with Calm Air is through a Canadian scheme called Air Miles (generic name, eh?).  So I signed up for an account with them.  Now I just needed to scrounge up 850 Air Miles for each Winnipeg-Churchill roundtrip.

I then discovered that with Priority Club (Holiday Inn, et al) you can convert 10,000 PC points into 250 Air Miles.  So I needed 70K PC points to get 1,750 Air Miles—enough for two tickets.  That sounds like a lot of points, but PC points are cheap to acquire. To start out, I already had 15K in my account from a single night stay in Bend, Oregon that cost a whopping $90.

Next thing you know, I had a Priority Club Visa in my wallet that earned 45K points for a $59 annual fee and then I straight up purchased 10K PC points directly for $60.  Now I had the 70K PC points I needed.  Just a short wait after redemption with PC, my Air Miles balance jumped to 1,750 and I immediately redeemed those for our Calm Air flights to Churchill.

Got it?  For a glimmer of transparency (as I think readers might be curious), here are the price breakdowns for this trip:

  • Winnipeg to Churchill flights: $353
    • Again, this would be $2K total if booked through "normal" channels—my new all time favorite redemption of points!
      • To acquire PC points: $119 (not including the cost of points earned incidentally from the Bend stay)
      • To redeem the Air Miles I had to drop $234 in "taxes and fees"
  • Seattle to Winnipeg flights: $94.02 plus 50K SkyMiles
  • Tundra Buggy: $700
    • That's for a full day of two people out scouting Polar Bears—including hot cocoa and soup. 
  • Churchill Motel: $188
    • No points redemptions available in Churchill, sadly!  And prices are high across the board.
  • Winnipeg Hotel (2 nights): $90 plus 5,600 Starwood Points
  • Car Rental in Winnipeg: $32
  • Vacation days: 2

Grand Total: $1,457.02 plus misc points (which were earned on the cheap)

Everyone values their pesos differently.  And many people might not even think Hudson Bay in November sounds like fun.  But for our money, this is great bang for the buck on a once in a lifetime trip.  Plus I'm not going to lie, it was a very fun puzzle to put together.

Again emphasizing that it's very possible to travel in a style well beyond your means while staying within your means.  Any questions?  (And props to anyone who read this far.)

Otherwise, expect the full trip report and photos here the week of November 2nd!

Labour Day Around Whistler

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The weather has been amazing out here the past several weeks.  Except, of course, for the long Labor Day weekend.  Dreams of camping and strenuous hiking were quickly dashed.  Luckily, we scored a great Plan B at a rustic townhome in Whistler courtesy of Mark and Jen (mostly Jen, though).

Saturday afternoon we went out for a stroll and came upon some canoe rentals at Alta Lake.  The weather was looking sorta clear so we rented a couple of them.  We had a nice little paddle across the lake and down a narrow river.

Photo courtesy of Mark & Jen

Zizou's enjoyment of the affair was questionable at times (he'd much rather be in the water).  Somehow, this is the third Labor Day in a row that we've all been on a watercraft together—powerboat in Tahoe 2007 and river raft in Idaho 2008 round out the list.

Photo courtesy of Mark & Jen

At this point it was time to cruise back up the river and back across the lake to the dock.  The only challenge was that the weather wasn't really cooperating with us.  While Mark and Jen are professional paddlers and just cruised right out of there, the competencies in the Klugusamy canoe left much to be desired.

The first three times we thought we were out of the mouth to the river and into the lake, the gale force winds quickly blew us backwards into some reeds.  There was much frustration and cursing in our canoe.  On the other hand, the always optimistic Zizou seemed to enjoy this windy part the most—he had his nose in the air just taking it all in.

After a brief time out and rational discussion of our game plan, we were back in the lake…phew.  Mark and Jen seemed to be relieved that we weren't forever lost.  And we were on our way back to the dock/rustic townhome.

Sunday took us to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park north of Pemberton, BC.  There are three alpine lakes on this supposedly excellent trail.  Sadly we only saw one of them, and it was all Zizou's fault.  Part of the trail is a huge rock scramble and it was a bit too nerve wracking watching him work his way through it, so we turned around.

Can only imagine what the upper and middle lakes look like because the lower one is just gorgeous.  Here Ziz took a swim while some random hooligans did some of the pot.

Back at the rustic townhome, I drank Baileys while Lillie and Jen made Red Lobster style biscuits, and Mark whipped up some soup from scratch.

Then Lillie ice grilled Jen while everyone else tried to have fun playing Taboo…

The rest of the Whistler trip was just more eating and sleeping.  Props again to Mark for playing chef.  A trip through Vancouver on the way home Monday wouldn't be complete without some Japanese food.  We hit up Motomachi Shokudo and it was awesome.  Here's my $10 pork ramen in a charcoal broth:

Great celebration of Labor/Labour.