Big Island Trip Report: Sights, Beaches, Hilton Waikoloa, and I did it for Almost Free

Hilton Waikoloa Sunset

My wife, kids, and I spent a week on the Big Island of Hawaii the week before Christmas. It was a great trip.  It was wonderful to get away from this wet weather here in Portland and enjoy sunny skies and warm weather.  For this trip report I am going to break things up into three sections; sights/beaches, our hotel, and how we did this for nearly free. Personally, I hate reading long trip reports so I will try to be succinct, or just post lots of pictures.

Sights and Beaches

The Big Island is filled with lots of amazing sights.  We didn’t even scratch the surface of all the things to see and do.  Big things that we missed were hikes, Keck Observatory, and long drives exploring the island.

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna is a world class beach.  We only spent one morning here because the shore break was a little too big for me to feel comfortable having the kids playing too close to the surf. The boogie boarding was great.  I wish we could have spent more time at this beach. Sans kids I would have spent all day here relaxing and playing in the surf.

Hapuna Beach1

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach

Hapuna Beach Surf

Hapuna Beach

Mauna Kea Beach

We spent more time at this beach than any other.  It is a spectacular beach.  The building in the picture below is the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.  Which by the way is a Marriott property for those paying attention with Marriott points to burn.  Public parking for the beach is managed by the hotel and there are only 40 public parking spaces.  The downside is you need to get to the beach early to get a parking spot.  If the parking lot is full you have to park a mile down the road at Hapuna and walk.  The upside is that the numbers at the beach stay low so you have a lot of room to yourself.

Mauna Kea Beach

Mauna Kea Beach

Magic Sands Beach

This beach is in Kailua-Kona and is called Magic Sands because the beach virtually disappears during the winter and “magically” reappears in the summer.  From the surf you can see why the sand disappears.

Magic Sands Beach Winter

Magic Sands

Magic Sands Beach Surf

Boogie Boarder at Magic Sands

Spencer Beach

We stopped here on our drive back from the North Kohala coast to watch the sunset. This is also a great beach for kids.

Spencer Beach Sunset

Spencer Beach Sunset

Pololu Valley Lookout

On the North Kohala Coast the road ends at this lookout.  There is a trail that you can hike down to the beach, which we skipped.  On the drive to this beach make sure to stop in the village of Hawi.  There is amazing ice cream at Tropical Dreams and even more amazing fudge next door at the Kohala Coffee Mill.

Pololu Valley Lookout

Pololu Valley Lookout


Volcanoes National Park was incredible.  We all had a blast exploring various parts of the park.  The boys loved the Thurston Lava Tube.   Highlights for me were the Hilina Pali lookout, which had an incredible view of the island, and Kilauea crater glowing after sunset.

Thurston Lava Tube

Thurston Lava Tube

Kilauea Iki Crater

Kilauea Iki

Hilina Pali Lookout

Hilina Pali Lookout

Devastation Trial Forest

Devastation Trail

Devastation Trail1

Devastation Trail

End of Chain of Craters Road

Old Lava Flows meet Ocean

Big Island Old Lava Flows

Lava Flows Scar Hillside

Kilauea Crater

Kilauea Crater Glowing

Hilton Waikoloa Village

The Hilton Waikoloa is huge, there are three different hotel towers, a 4 acre lagoon, and pools galore.  I saw a sign that said the maximum pool occupancy is 2200 people and that was just for the pool by our tower.  The property is so large there is a boat and a tram to take you between the three hotel towers, the convention center, and the lobby.  Which are all in separate buildings.

The tower furthest from the lobby is the Ocean Tower it is the circular shaped building in the map below.  I think most people are booked into this tower.  It is a 20 minute walk from the lobby to the Ocean Tower.  We lucked out because I managed to get us upgraded into the Lagoon Tower, which is the building on the opposite side of the bay from the Ocean Tower.

So instead of a 20 minute walk to our room we had a 3 minute walk.  We were also upgraded into a one bedroom suite.  That made a world of difference for us as well with the 2 little guys.

Hilton Waikoloa One Bedroom Suite Bedroom Hilton Waikoloa One Bedroom Suite Living Room

The grounds, the hotel room, the pools, the lagoon, the dolphins, and the entire atmosphere were all fantastic.

Hilton Waikoloa View of Ocean Tower

Hilton Waikoloa View From Lagoon Hilton Waikoloa Lagoon2 Hilton Waikoloa Dolphin Lagoon

Hilton Waikoloa Kona Pool1 Hilton Waikoloa Kona Pool

While I enjoyed these things immensely I would not reccomend this hotel unless you can guarantee a stay in the Lagoon Tower.  Which if you are booking on points like I did, is not something you can guarantee, we just lucked out big time.  Why would I not recommend this hotel?

Well, I’ve never been nickel and dimed so much by a hotel in my life.  It was unbelievable. For instance, I needed a knife to cut a pineapple, so I called room service.  They told me it would be a $12 charge just to bring me a knife!  There is a $25 per day resort charge plus $25 per day parking fee ($30 per day for valet) The restaurants are all insanely overpriced and the food ranges from bad to average at best.  The breakfast buffet is $30 per adult and barely a step up from the free breakfast at a Staybridge Suites.

Also if you are staying in the Ocean Tower make sure you have everything before leaving your room and going to your car.  If you self park it is 20-25 minutes to your car, if you forget something….

There are some definite pluses about the Hilton Waikoloa.  Mainly, that it is a wonderful place for kids.  Both my boys enjoyed the lagoon and we spent almost every afternoon there.  I was fortunate to be upgraded into the Lagoon Tower.  If I was in the Ocean Tower I think our experience would have been much different and since I can’t guarantee that result I would probably opt for another location next time.  Still, it was a wonderful place and if you are paying the premium for the Lagoon Tower I think you will enjoy your stay as much as we did.

Booking This Trip on Miles and Points

We stayed 7 nights on the Big Island and our total out of pocket expenses were about $300.  When I booked this trip I set out with the goal of a $0 vacation including all expenses.  I thought it would make for a fun experiment.  In the end we spent about $300 of our own money for the entire trip, including all expenses.  We did all this with credit card signup bonus.


Airfare was covered with one credit card.  A couple years back the British Airways Visa had a 100,000 mile sign up bonus.  This was good for 4 round trip tickets to Hawaii on Alaska Airlines.  The taxes and fees came out to $20.


I signed up for 4 Hilton credit cards over the course of a year that netted me 210,000 Hilton points.  With meeting the minimum spending on each card plus putting a little extra spending on the card we got up to 240,000 hilton points.  This allowed us to book 5 nights for free with 200,000 points and then I booked two additional nights with cash and points for 20,000 points + $125.  The cash portion I charged to my Barclay Arrival card and used the points from the Arrival card to cover the hotel expenses.


To cover expenses we signed up for the Wells Fargo Propel World card, Barclay’s Arrival card, and the Chase Freedom card.  Each came with a cashback bonus and between these three cards we had about $1,100 in spending money.  Unfortunately, the hotel expenses that were not covered by points (two nights points and cash, parking, and three meals at the hotel) sucked up about $500.  So we ended up not having as much spending money as we had hoped for.  I guess I should not complain too much since we had an awesome vacation and only spent $300 of our own money.

Total credit cards for the trip was 7 spread out over a year. I applied for 4 and my wife applied for 3.

If you are interested in learning to travel for (almost) free like we did for this trip, check out my miles and points consulting page.  The best benefit of which is that I will assist you with all award bookings for a year.


This was one of our favorite vacations thus far with the boys.  We all had a wonderful time and the boys were still talking about Hawaii when we got home.  It was nice to escape the dreary winter weather here in Portland and get some sun and beach time.  We try to go to Hawaii every year and usually go in the fall.  We had such a great time that we are thinking about permanently moving our trip to the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which by the way is a low season in Hawaii so you can score some great deals.

If you have not been to the Big Island, add it to your bucket list.

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America’s Largest Cuckoo Clock at Portland Airport

Portland Cuckoo Clock

Last night when we got home from Hawaii (Trip Report to follow soon) I was greeted by this big wooden cuckoo clock.  Turns out is is part of a promotion by Travel Portland the official tourist marketing wing of the City of Portland.  Travel Portland hired a wood carver to build this sucker and then sent it to Vancouver BC and Seattle to promote Portland tourism.  The clock will be sitting in the atrium at PDX just past security for gates A,B, and C.  In addition to the clock Travel Portland is also running a promotion on their website for winter travel, this is what the press release says.

Winter Deal Wheel Offers Visitors Free Stuff

As if tax-free shopping weren’t enough, the Portland Is Happening Now Deal Wheel highlights a dozen of the nearly 90 discounts and deals around Portland that will be available to winter travelers, including free dining, shopping and beer-related items. Visitors who book a Portland hotel stay for travel through March 31, 2015, on will be given access to a downloadable coupon pack that features more than 85 coupons valued at more than $1,000.

The items travelers can redeem without a purchase (deals are good through March 31, 2015) include:

  • Bunk: One FREE sandwich at all Bunk Sandwich or Bunk Bar locations
  • Columbia Sportswear: One FREE Portland Is Happening Now shopping tote by Portland Garment Factory at the downtown or airport locations
  • Hopworks Urban Brewery: One FREE ceramic mini-growler from Portland Growler Co. (beer not included) at the N. Williams or S.E. Powell locations 

Examples of the other 85+ coupons (deals are good through Dec. 31, 2015) include:

  • Burgerville: FREE regular size milkshake or smoothie with purchase of equal or greater value
  • Danner: 20% off a pair of USA-made boots
  • Salt and Straw Ice Cream: One FREE single (4 oz.) scoop of ice cream with purchase of one of equal or greater value

While this sounds good I don’t think it is that great of a deal.  For starters, the coupon book they are referring to is the Chinook Book which can be purchased online.  No need to overpay for a hotel to get the book.  Second, if you are traveling to Portland this winter using my Priceline method for hotels is an absolute must.  Taking advantage of low demand is THE best way to score cheap deals on hotels.

While I don’t think the promotion is that great, at least they built a really cool clock.

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Uber Comes to Portland and How Uber Works

On Friday Uber began operating in Portland, without the blessing of city officials.  Needless to say some of the powers that be in city government had some choice words.  My favorite quote comes from Steve Novick the City Commissioner who oversees the Bureau of Transportation, the bureau in charge of regulating taxis.

“They think they can just come in here and flagrantly violate the law? This is really amazing.  Apparently, they believe they’re gods.”

I suppose you can always count on a politician for asinine rhetoric like that.  To counter and for a helpful video about Uber you should see this video from the Oregonian.

I have yet to use Uber, but I plan on giving it a try on Thursday when the family and I head to the airport.

How Uber works is pretty simple.  After downloading the app and entering your details and method of payment (use my referral link for $20 off first ride) ordering a ride only takes a click of a button.

When you launch the app it will zero in your location.  To order a car press the black arrow.

Uber Pickup

Then to confirm press the black UberX button.

Uber Confirm

Prior to confirming your order you can also use the fare estimator (on the left above the Request button) to get an idea how much your ride will cost.

Uber Fare Estimate

If you want to check the rates you can press the little blue car prior to pressing the black arrow button.

Uber Rates

One major complaint about Uber is that they have surge pricing, meaning they jack up the rates during high demand.  I have no experience with Uber so take this for what it’s worth, my assumption is that when they increase prices the current rate will show up in the blue button.  If they don’t then I’m not sure how much I will use Uber.  I’m excited to try Uber and we’ll see how it plays out here in Portland.

Update:   Uber has suspended operations in Portland after getting into an ugly fight with the City.  Plan for now is Uber will stop operating in Portland and the city has agreed to update taxi regulations in the next three months.  The saga continues…

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Uber Now Live in Portland

Update 2:  More on the City making threats to Uber.  This time from the Oregonian.  My favorite quote in the article, from Steve Novick our always level headed city commissioner “‘They think they can just come in here and flagrantly violate the law?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is really amazing. Apparently, they believe they’re gods.'”  Congrats people, if you order an Uber you will get a ride from god!

Update:  Looks like Portland and Uber did not work it.  Per this article from the Portland Mercury.  Uber decided to give Portland city council the middle finger and just do it.  Looks like Portland is threatening action.  #developing.  

About a month ago I wrote about Uber going live in the Suburbs but the Portland cab cartel was trying to keep Uber out of Portland.  Looks like Uber has prevailed and is now live in Portland.

What is Uber?  Uber is a ridesharing company that allows you to use your smartphone to order a ride, track the cars progress to you in real time, texts you when the car arrives, and all payment is handled through the app.

I’m very curious to give Uber a try and see how the rates compare to the traditional taxi companies.  I’ll post more this weekend about Uber and how the app works.  In the mean time, here is an easy way to earn $40 to $60 in free rides:

If you use my referral link to sign up for Uber you will receive a free ride worth $20.  When you sign up you will also get a referral link/code.  If you refer a friend they will get $20 and when they take their first ride you get $20.  If you have a significant other this is effectively $60 for the two of you.

The one caveat to these credits is that they work for one ride at a time, and they operate more like vouchers.  It’s really one free ride worth up to $20.  So if your ride is $17, that uses up your entire $20 free ride.  If your ride is $40, then you owe the difference.

Note:  When you use my referral link I also get a referral credit.  Thank you in advance.  

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