Tag Archives: advice

Using Foursquare for Navigation Instead of Google Maps

In the US, I love Google Maps; in foreign countries, I hate it. Google Maps has led me astray in pretty much every single foreign country that I’ve visited, so you think I would’ve learned by now not to trust it. The most recent example: Nahm is not in the correct place, which is crazy given that it’s one of the most famous restaurants in Bangkok, and it’s located in a large hotel. I try to correct misplaced markers when I discover them, but I’ve only seen one of my submissions corrected to the right location. Darn you, Google Maps.

Instead, I’ve come to trust Foursquare. The biggest benefit to Foursquare is that it’s crowdsourced, so everybody can help make it more accurate, and in navigating Thailand, it has yet to lead me astray. You can also save locations in Foursquare that you want to visit in the future, and it’s easy to browse those saved locations later.

I’m also a fan of Foursquare’s discovery features, although they’re a little less useful in less trodden places and in places like Thailand where many of the food options are just roadside stalls, but I’m always pleasantly surprised by the wealth of data that Foursquare has. So far, every place that I’ve seen mentioned online in Thailand or heard by word of mouth has had a Foursquare listing with a correct map location, and it’s helped me find some good eats that I doubt I would’ve found otherwise.

Credit Cards I Currently Have

Like any good frequent traveler, I have a lot of credit cards (although I just cancelled 2!) Here’s a list of what I have (and have cancelled) and some preliminary thoughts on what I should get next.

Citi Forward (keep)
This was my first “points” card that I ever got, and I got it while I was in college. It still gets 5x points on restaurants, movies, and bookstores, but I have only used this card very sparingly since I got involved in churning cards since Thank You points can’t be transferred to any decent travel partners. Given the United devaluation, I think I might start using this card for my dining purchases instead of my Chase Sapphire Preferred, so this card might re-earn its place in my wallet for as long as it gets 5x on dining. No annual fee, so no point in closing this.

Citi American Airlines Visa (cancelled) + Citi American Airlines Amex (kept)
I got two Citi AA cards a little over a year ago. When the annual fees came up, I decided to cancel one and see what retention bonus I could get on the other. I wanted to try to hold onto one of them for the 10% rebate on AA miles redeemed up to the first 100k miles redeemed each year, and I chose to cancel the Visa card over the Amex card since Amex runs promotions like the recent Small Business Saturday and $25 off Amazon.com purchases totaling over $75. For the Citi AA Amex, they offered a retention offer of a $95 statement credit (the annual fee is only $85) plus 1000 bonus miles for each billing cycle where I spend more than $1000 for the next 16 billing cycles. Sold.

Citi Hilton Reserve (probably cancel)
I got this card for the sign-up bonus of two free weekend nights at any Hilton, which I used at the Conrad Hong Kong. I previously contemplated whether or not I should spend the $10k necessary to get the annual free weekend night certificate, and I ended up completing the spend, so I’ll at least hold onto the card until the certificate posts next year. Moving forward, I think it’s a little doubtful that I’ll hold onto this card since the spend threshold for the annual bonus is relatively high, and everyday spend of 3x Hilton points is not that compelling.

Chase Freedom (keep)
I haven’t used my Chase Freedom at all recently, but there’s no annual fee, so I might as well hold onto the card. My problem is that I very, very rarely actually buy things that can’t be consumed, so even the 5x points on Amazon right now isn’t compelling to me (prior to this past week when I was buying Amazon.com giftcards, the last time I bought something off of Amazon was in May to send a friend a wedding present; the last time I bought something for myself off of Amazon was over a year ago…). I really only maximize the rotating categories when it involves restaurants or drug stores, which clearly makes me a very bad mileage earner.

Chase Sapphire Preferred (keep for now)
This is generally my default card if I’m not meeting a minimum spend since all I spend money on is food and travel. I recently got a new card with a chip in it, which will be helpful in Europe, and the card is pretty solid all around with good benefits and no foreign transaction fees. I’m not entirely sure what to do with my Ultimate Rewards points now that I’ve essentially abandoned United, but there are still a couple of decent award redemptions on the chart (okay, maybe only one that I’m interested in). I figure I can always transfer to British Airways Avios or Hyatt if I don’t want to do United.

Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Personal (cancelled) + Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Business (will cancel)
I cancelled my personal Chase United MilagePlus Explorer card before the annual fee posted, and I haven’t touched my business version of the card since meeting the minimum spend requirement. Why would you when the Chase Sapphire Preferred outearns both cards, even for tickets on United?

Chase Hyatt (keep)
Again, not really much of a reason to use this card given that the Chase Sapphire Preferred is superior in almost every way, except for spending at Hyatt properties themselves. I’ll probably keep this card and pay the $75 annual fee for the free annual night certificate at a category 1-4 Hyatt property.

Bank of America Alaska x2 (one downgraded; will cancel)
I recently got my second Bank of America Alaska Airlines card. My first one was downgraded to a no annual fee card that I will likely never use. Not that I’ve even activated the second card that I got recently, since the 25k sign-up bonus posts just for getting the card, not even for using it for the first time.

Bank of America Hawaiian Airlines + Bank of Hawaii Hawaiian Airlines (both cancelled)
I called to cancel both of these cards within the past week in anticipation of the annual fees hitting next month. No real reason to get these cards any more since I got them to transfer to Hilton points, but then Hilton had their massive devaluation.

Barclays US Airways x2 (kept)
My 10k annual bonus posted to my US Airways account for my first Barclays card, and the 15k bonus for spending $750+ for three months consecutively also posted for my second Barclays card. These are honestly some of my favorite cards. I’ll continue to hold onto them for as long as the merger makes it possible. I would absolutely love it if we could keep them indefinitely and earn 10k bonus miles each year for paying an annual fee, and if we could still earn 10k elite qualifying miles for spending $25k on the card annually. This of course is also assuming that the AA/US devaluation isn’t a bloodbath…

Discover More (keep)
Isn’t it great when Amazon Payments counts towards the current 5% category? This card is kinda like the Chase Freedom in that it’s not an essential card for mileage junkies to have, but it’s oftentimes a very nice supplement, especially since it comes with no annual fee and doesn’t compete with a Chase/Citi/Amex slot. And given that the trend seems to be increasingly that cash back will be king, there are oftentimes some very good cash back offers with this card.

US Bank Club Carlson Personal + Business (keep for now)
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m going to ride this gravy train for as long as possible. 5x points on everyday spend is the most compelling non-bonused option for me, considering that the highest redemptions are 50k per night, but with the credit card, 50k gets you two nights. And having the personal and business versions means I could get 4 nights for 100k points. And you can transfer points freely between accounts (assuming that the transferring account has Club Carlson elite status, which can be easily status matched and comes for free with the credit cards). Yes, the footprint is small, and the properties are not particularly aspirational.

Amex SPG (?)
I do not know what I should do with this card, but I have another couple of months to decide. I’m not a big spender, and I don’t really stay at SPG hotels. The points are flexible with their airline transfer partners, but transfers aren’t instant, and I accrue these points so slowly that I think it’s hard for me to hit the 20k increments necessary to get the transfer bonuses. I am a fan of Amex benefits, though.

Amex Platinum (will probably cancel)
I got this card in January 2013 when they were offering 100k Membership Rewards points as a sign-up bonus, which means my annual fee will be posting next month. I am switching to American as my primary carrier, but Amex just announced that the Amex Platinum will no longer provide lounge access to AA lounges while flying American. There are Centurion lounges in DFW and LAS (and SFO in the future, which is more relevant to me), but I believe the Centurion lounge at SFO will be in Terminal 3, not Terminal 2, which is not helpful when flying AA. I got an offer for an additional $200 in AA statement credits due to this benefit change, so I figure that I should hold on to the card at least through the end of March 2014 to take advantage of this offer. Beyond that, I’m not sure what to do. I like Priority Pass, but if I’m switching to oneworld then I don’t really need Priority Pass since I’ll have lounge access through my oneworld Emerald status. I might try doing the alternating churn thing with the business version of the Amex Plat.

I currently have 16 open cards. For my next round of credit card applications, I’ll probably try to push my luck and actually churn some of the cards I’ve already had. It’ll have been 15 months since I last applied for a Citi AA card, so I might try to get one of those, and I might also try to get a third Barclays US Airways card before it disappears forever. Besides those cards, I haven’t quite decided, so I’m open to suggestions.

Delayed Thoughts on Devaluations

I know that I’m super late to the game with this post, but I’ve been traveling a lot recently and work has been hectic and you clearly shouldn’t be using my blog as your only source of frequent flyer news anyway.

Over the past few weeks, multiple programs have announced devaluations: United’s was a bloodbath, Hyatt’s was fine, I don’t care about Delta. I’m bracing myself for the potential US Airways/American pre- or post-merger devaluation, as most of my miles are in those two programs, and I have a couple of awards that I want to redeem in January in each program, so I hope they don’t devalue before then. I also got the Club Carlson credit cards relatively recently, and I know that that program just HAS to devalue soon as the free award night on every stay via the credit card is just too good to be true.

So many people have freaked out about the devaluations. Yes, United is nearly doubling some of my favorite awards (I have two first class one-ways to Southeast Asia on Star Alliance partners planned for next year), and I myself decided to burn through my remaining United miles upon hearing about the devaluation, but devaluations like this shouldn’t come as a shock to us. United has been printing miles like crazy with 50k sign-up bonuses on multiple credit cards (e.g. MileagePlus Explorer for business AND personal, Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink cards), ridiculous 5x bonus spend on office supplies on Chase Ink cards, 2x miles on travel and dining on the CSP, etc. When it’s nearly trivial for a beginner to accumulate enough United miles to fly roundtrip in business class to nearly anywhere in the world without having stepped foot in a plane and every blogger and their mom lays it out step by step how to do so, what do you expect is going to happen?

The year before, people were horrified by the Hilton devaluation. But at the time, it was just as easy to accumulate massive numbers of Hilton points just through credit card sign-up bonuses (e.g. Amex offered multiple Hilton cards, Hawaiian airlines cards could be churned and transferred, Virgin Atlantic points could be transferred, etc). When it’s that easy to manufacture points, you should be expecting devaluations to happen.

This is one of the main reasons why I’m hitting trying to earn and burn Club Carlson as quickly as possible. An 85k point sign-up bonus is huge, plus 40k at anniversary for paying the annual fee, plus 5x everyday spend, plus the free night on every award stay. This does not seem sustainable to me, people, so take advantage of it while you can. Think about it: you can get 2 nights at any Club Carlson property after spending 10k on their credit card; 10k of spend on any other hotel card gets you at best a mid-level hotel in any other program. How does the math work on that? Granted, their properties aren’t the most aspirational and the Club Carlson footprint is relatively small, but whenever I’m planning to go somewhere with a Club Carlson hotel, I will be looking to burn those points first.

This game is only going to get harder as time goes on. Already, there’s the effect of forums like Flyertalk increasingly becoming less valuable to casual observers as fewer deals get posted, bloggers increasingly posting repetitive, inane drivel to drive page views and credit cards apps, information increasingly becoming circulated only amongst those people already “in-the-know”. There will always be deals to be had, but they’ll likely be more involved or more targeted or otherwise more inaccessible than they are today.

Much of this is just to say that you should focus on burning just as much as on earning. My number one piece of advice to newbies is to understand what you want before you get started so you know what you should be doing. Unless you derive pleasure just from seeing points balances increasing (or perhaps the cost per mile is ridiculously low), you should almost always be thinking about ways to spend the points that you’re earning because devaluations can and will happen at any time. And realistically, if you’re aiming for the super aspirational redemptions like international first class, you should probably be taking advantage of whatever  chances you have to do so now as it’s just going to get increasingly harder to redeem for these cabins. United’s devaluation is a perfect example of that.

Choosing Which Credit Cards to Hold or Cancel and Calling the Citi Retention Line

My first major set of credit card applications was October 2012, where I got a Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa, a Citi American Airlines Visa, a Citi American Airlines Amex, and a Barclays US Airways card. I decided to outright cancel the Bank of America Alaska card in preparation for applying for a new one for my last set of credit card applications, although I ended up downgrading instead to a no annual fee card (which still charged me an annual fee, but that’s the subject of another post). I also decided to cancel the Citi AA Visa, as I definitely didn’t need two American Airlines credit cards.

That left the Citi AA Amex and the Barclays US Airways card. If you redeem American miles frequently, then holding a Citi American Airlines card is a good idea because you get a 10% mileage rebate on all redemptions up to the first 100k miles you redeem each year (i.e. you can get up to 10k miles back this way), and 10k American miles are worth more than the $85 annual fee for most people. In addition, I decided to hold onto the Citi AA Amex over the Visa because of the chance that Amex Small Business Saturday would offer rebates to Amex cards used at small businesses, which would further offset the annual fee. However, I wasn’t wedded to holding onto this card since I can add another Citi AA card to my next round of credit card applications in January, as the 12+ month churn cycle for Citi cards still seems alive and well.

For the Barclays US Airways card, I was a little bit on the fence. I signed up for a version of the card that gives 10k bonus miles every year, which again is generally worth more than the $89 annual fee for most people. But what made me decide to hold onto the card was the offer that I got for a 25% mileage rebate on award redemptions, and this offer was targeted to this credit card. So given that holding onto this card will earn me 32.5k miles (10k from anniversary bonus; 22.5k from a 90k award redemption to take advantage of the 25% rebate offer), I think it makes sense to keep it for now.

So for the Citi AA Amex card, I decided to call the number on the back of my card to see what they could do for me about the annual fee. When I told the phone rep that I wasn’t sure whether or not the annual fee was worth it to me, she told me about all of the meaningless benefits like priority boarding and a free checked bag (meaningless to me because I’ll be AA Executive Platinum next year). When I told her that I didn’t care about those benefits, she offered me 500 miles to keep the card since I was a valued Citi customer.

500 miles? I thought she was joking. But she was seriously offering me 500 miles to pay an $85 annual fee. 500 miles is worth maybe at an extreme valuation $10 to me. At that point, I was mildly offended, so I told her to just cancel the card if Citi valued my business at 500 miles.

At that point, she came up with a much better offer: a one-time statement credit of $95 (the annual fee is only $85), and the opportunity to earn 1,000 bonus miles for each of the next 16 billing cycles where I spend more than $1,000 on the card. I don’t need to do anything to get the $95 statement credit, and 2x miles on all spend for the first $1,000 spent each month is pretty compelling. Offer accepted. I’ll be sure to start bringing this card to me whenever I go to CVS for the next 16 months.

How to Maximize the US Airways Share Miles Promotion

As has already been plastered all over the travel blogosphere, US Airways is running their share miles promo, which is effectively one of the best ways to buy airlines miles out there. While US Airways normally runs buy miles promos where you can buy US Airways miles for roughly 1.8 cents per mile, with the share miles promo, you can buy US Airways miles for about 1.13 cents per mile, assuming that you or someone you know has a base of US Airways miles to start.

Many people suggest that it’s worthwhile to buy miles speculatively at this price, since this means that a roundtrip flight to North Asia (which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan) in business class is a little over $1000, which is a steal considering that it’s hard to find coach airfares lower than that to some cities. And you get a stopover or an open jaw, which you often have to pay extra for on a cash fare.

So how should you maximize this promotion? Most blogs suggest something like finding another person and transferring 50k miles from person A to person B, who then has 100k miles, and then transferring 50k miles from person B back to person A, so person A gets their 50k miles back plus an additional 50k miles. So in total, person A has bought 50k miles at the price of 1.13 cents per mile, and person B has bough 50k miles at the price of 1.13 cents per mile.

But 50k miles isn’t enough for the 90k needed for a roundtrip business class ticket, and US Airways doesn’t have one-way redemptions, so there’s not too much of a point in going half way. And if 1.13 cents per mile is a price to buy speculatively, then you should want to try to buy as many miles as possible, right?

If you have access to another account where the owner of said account doesn’t care about the promo, then you can do better. Person A starts with 50k miles and transfers 50k to person B, so person B now has 100k miles. Then, person B transfers 50k miles to person A and 50k miles to person C. Person A is in the same situation as the typical blog recommendation (having received an extra 50k miles at 1.13 cents per mile), but now person C has 100k miles, as they’ve effectively bought 100k miles at the price of 1.13 cents per mile. Person B is left with no gain, as the miles that they were bonused are now in person C’s account.

But if you’re starting from zero, person C is in a much better position, as 50k miles won’t get you to Asia in business class, but 100k miles will. So this seems to be a more optimal way to use the promo. Rather than making a “circle” trade of sorts, it’s better to have one account as a dead end where all the miles are going out. This enables other accounts to go from 0 to 100k miles, rather than just 0 to 50k miles.

Required Watching/Reading for All Frequent Travelers: “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace

This is probably less relevant for people who have the pleasure to fly business or first class exclusively, but for the rest of us frequent travelers who are sometimes (or often (or always)) in the back of the plane, I highly recommend reading/watching “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace. Actually, scratch that, this should be required reading/watching for everyone, regardless of who you are. The text comes from a commencement speech that he gave to Kenyon College in 2005.

Essentially, you shouldn’t ever be the person who’s like “do you know who I am”. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, the world does not revolve around you, and people do not exist merely to stand in your way. You have the ability to reframe how you think, and you can choose to reinterpret the world around you. As I’ve internalized this change in perspective, flying has become infinitely more enjoyable, which is part of the reason why I travel so much more than I used to.

Why You Shouldn’t Change Your Spending Habits When You Get New Credit Cards

I’ve successfully converted a number of friends to points and miles earning credit cards, but I sometimes worry about what I’ve done. In general, the credit cards I recommend to my friends have minimum spending requirements (like $3,000 in the first three months for the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which is the card I normally recommend to newbies) in order to get the full sign-up bonus, and while I do believe wholeheartedly that these sign-up bonuses are worth the minimum spend, it’s possible to make inefficient decisions that negate the benefits of applying for credit cards.

The most dangerous thing that I see people do is change their spending habits to hit minimum spend requirements. This isn’t inherently bad, but it depends on what you’re changing. If you’re just shifting around spend onto a credit card that you would already otherwise do, that’s great! This is a good change, as you’re maximizing the value of your spending. If you’re just frontloading your spending (e.g. buying Christmas presents in July instead of in December to hit a minimum spending requirement), this also isn’t bad, provided that you have the ability to float the money (there’s an inherent cost to spending your money now rather than later, and Christmas presents are not very likely to appreciate in that time period).

But the thing you should almost never do is buy things you wouldn’t normally buy, and I worry that the notion of having a minimum spend requirement makes people more willing to spend money that they normally wouldn’t spend. For example, if you’re at Whole Foods watching a guy doing a Vitamix demonstration and you think to yourself, “gosh, I don’t really need a Vitamix, but it’s pretty awesome and it makes such smooth smoothies and can even make soup, and I do have a $3,000 minimum spend that I need to meet”, then you’re in the danger zone. Stop and reconsider! If you spend $500 on a blender that you don’t really need and the sign-up bonus is only worth $500 to you, then you’ve negated the entire sign-up bonus. (I don’t mean to disparage Vitamix blenders at all, as they are really, really awesome and totally worth it for some people)

How do you get around this and avoid this spending trap? Essentially, you need to ignore the fact that you have a minimum spend requirement and spend as you normally would. You’re not maximizing your benefit if you end up spending money on things that you don’t need.

But what if you’re like me and your normal spending habits aren’t nearly high enough to hit minimum spend requirements? This is where manufactured spend comes into play. Pretty much everyone can easily manufacture an extra $1,000 per month for free via Amazon Payments, and if this still isn’t enough, then you can try something like Bluebird and Vanilla Reloads to get up to an extra $5,000 per month at a cost of $3.95 per $500 of manufactured spend (well, technically paying $3.95 per $503.95 of manufactured spend). It’s true that you’re changing your spending habits and spending money that you normally wouldn’t have spent, but at least this way, the spend is much more constrained, and you’re still almost certainly going to come out ahead paying $3.95 per $503.95 of spend on almost any decent rewards card.

Three Magical Hungarian Phrases That Every Tourist Should Know

One of my friends is headed to Budapest, and he asked me for some advice about navigating Budapest, given that I lived there for a time during college. And my biggest recommendation is to learn these three magical phrases:

1) Jó napot kívánok
2) Beszél angolul
3) Köszönöm szépen

These mean “hello”, “do you speak English”, and “thank you”, respectively, which doesn’t sound that impressive or magical, but whenever I used these phrases in Hungary, people would magically become much more helpful.

I have two guesses as to why I had so much success: 1) given that Hungarian is rather obscure and not useful/intelligible with other languages, I don’t think many tourists make any sort of effort to speak any of it, so Hungarians appreciate it when tourists try; and 2) because these are the formal forms of these phrases, Hungarian people find it kind of quaint or amusing that a tourist might try using them and thus become more helpful. I mean, if someone came up to you and said, “I wish you a good day” or “thank you beautifully” (the literal translations of phrases #1 and #3), wouldn’t that put you in a better mood (ignoring of course that the latter phrase isn’t colloquial at all) and more willing to help that person?

Why I Don’t Want to Redeem for Business Class

In a previous post, I talked about why travel is a good use of money, which is largely because people tend to underinvest in experiences and overinvest in material goods even though experiential purchases tend to make people happier than material purchases. Taking this another step, I’ve realized that it doesn’t really make sense for me to redeem for business class; I should instead redeem for either coach class or first class.

In order to maximize my happiness, I should maximize my experiences. This can be accomplished either through taking more trips or by making the trips that I do take as memorable as possible. Since business class awards usually exist in the odd space where they’re considerably more expensive than economy class awards but not that much cheaper than first class awards (e.g. a one-way United award from the US to South Asia is 32.5k in coach, 60k in business, and 70k in first), it doesn’t seem to make much sense to redeem for business class awards. I can take nearly twice as many trips if I avoided business class altogether, and thus maximize experiences through maximizing trips, or I can spend a little bit more in miles to fly in first class, which I believe is a significantly more memorable and special experience for the marginal miles cost.

Don’t get me wrong, business class can be great, but it’s primarily about comfort while flying and not pampering and creating superlative flight experiences. I’ve had good experiences flying in business class, but none of those can compare to things like taking a shower on an airplane. And personally, the biggest factor in determining how much sleep I get on a flight is not seat comfort but whether or not the flight time overlaps with my current sleep schedule, so a fully-flat seat isn’t a guarantee of any sleep (e.g. I slept for less than 2 hours on a 12-hour flight in a fully-flat business seat because the flight left at 11am and landed at 11pm my time).

Ultimately, whether or not you should redeem for coach or business or first or even magazine subscriptions depends on your utility function. What do you derive the most happiness from? No one else can determine that for you, but I hope that explaining my own thought processes might help illuminate your own preferences.

How to Spend Your Money (or Why Travel is a Good Use of Money)

(I realize that this post is mostly just preaching to the choir, but I have a future point in mind)

Most of us are lucky enough to have at least some discretionary income to spend on whatever we choose. One question this leads to is what’s the best use of this discretionary spending. Should we spend our money on nice restaurants? Clothing? Gadgets? Travel?

Luckily, psychologists have researched this question, and in general, assuming you’re optimizing for happiness, you should spend your money on experiences rather than material possessions. As stated in the linked paper, “people derive more enjoyment from discretionary experiential purchases than from discretionary material purchases”.

Travel is definitely an experiential purchase, so it’s a good way to use your money to increase your happiness. Same thing with spending money on restaurants, concerts, amusement parks, sports, etc. On the other hand, you might want to reconsider spending lots of money on clothing, jewelry, electronics, or other material goods.

Many of my friends are surprised how I can afford to travel so often. Part of it is through smart usage of miles and points, but it’s also largely because I don’t really spend money on non-consumable material goods. About 60% of my discretionary spending is for travel, about 30% for restaurants and food, and the remaining 10% for everything else, which includes my gym membership, toiletries, and gifts for others. The last time I bought a non-consumable material good for myself was 9 months ago when I bought a new pair of shoes (my old ones were literally falling apart) and a tote bag (you have to pay for disposable bags in San Francisco).

I’ve chosen to spend my money like this because I know that I derive more utility from going to new places and eating good food as opposed to having things. I also tend to dislike owning things as they often just create clutter and make things more complicated, which further reinforces my spending on experiences over material goods.

What’s the breakdown of your discretionary spending? Should you be devoting more to travel?