Showing posts from 2018

Every once in a while I wish I had actual American Airlines points

Thus far, I've avoided ever having a single American Airlines mile. Despite what you might think, I don't have a strong desire to know the ins- and outs of every system out there. Plus, they're legendary for having terrible award availability. The trip itself, not the way I get there, is still where the bulk of my energy is spent. Thus far, Alaska and British Airways partner redemptions have been "good enough" for my OneWorld/American Airlines needs and I've been able to avoid dealing directly with them. Neither Chase UR nor Amex MR points can be transferred to them, so the only option is to start accruing them, or do a SPG/Marriott transfer which can take multiple days (or weeks if their newly-combined IT department is having another flareup of digital heartburn).

Yesterday in trying to help my husband find a flight home from a family emergency in Montana, my Alaska/British strategy finally hit a wall. I knew exactly which flight he wanted to be on, yet neit…

What I bought with the Amazon Amex 20% discount

Amazon brought back their promotion where you get 20% off if you use Amex points during checkout. Since pay-with-points is a bad deal, most people are simply using one single Amex point to pay 1¢ of their order and then reaping 20% off their whole order. Details from the July promotion are here, but the short story is that for this November offer, Amazon and iTunes gift cards are now excluded, so I need a different strategy.

First off, I needed to follow the steps to see if I was targeted for this offer – and luckily I was. Basically what I'm looking for is a brain-dead way to quickly dump $500 worth of items into my Amazon cart that will end up only costing me $400 with the 20% off promo. But in choosing what to get, here's some food for thought:
don't buy anything overpricedonly buy things I actually need and would buy otherwisedon't buy things that spoil or expiredon't buy things that are time-consuming or difficult to use If you're a frequent Whole Food…

A great Amex offer for New Yorkers (targeted)

The MTA is doing a targeted Amex offer for $10 off when you use Apple Pay to spend $10 or more on their MTA e-tix app. You can use the offer 3 times for up to $30 back.

The app lets you purchase, store, and activate digital tickets for Metro North and Long Island Railroad trains. Most importantly, the app lets you skip the lines at Grand Central, which can be incredibly long on holiday weekends and at rush hour.

Log in to your Amex account and make sure you click "View All" to see if you're targeted. Also, make sure you use the targeted Amex card for Apple Pay when buy your tickets. To set the targeted card as the default in Apple Pay, open the Wallet app on your iPhone, press and hold on the desired card, and then drag the card to the bottom of the stack. (Sidenote to Apple: this interface makes no sense whatsoever).

What we did in Oaxaca

The food and mezcal in Oaxaca are as amazing as we'd heard. We've been twice now, and I'm sure we'll go again. We're not experts by any means, but here's a few bits we learned.

Gabe's and my Google map
Before you goThere are no fancy-lady western chain hotels. There's a fairly new Holiday Inn and that's about it. We stay at Xtilu mostly because it's a boutique hotel for people 18 and over. (Lots of people bring their kids to Oaxaca and I like to sleep in). There's a gay B&B but I wasn't able to book it for either of our trips.

That reminds me: Oaxaca is popular. Very popular. I tried to book a January mezcal tour five months early and they were completely sold out. Don't think you're going someplace off the beaten path!

There are some amazing beaches in the state of Oaxaca, but they're a short flight (or a 6+ hour drive one-way) from Oaxaca city.

The "shared taxi" from the airport to town can save you some…

The thing no one's saying about that new CapitalOne card

This week everyone was surprised when Capital One announced that they were going to allow their points to be transferred directly into airline points programs. It's been interesting to see all of the various blogs doing their analyses without ever really bringing up the fact that no one knows if this is going to be an instant points transfer (like with Chase and Amex) or a multi-day process (like with SPG/Marriott points).

What's a bit irksome for me about the mainstream blogs' coverage is that they seem to have forgotten how normal people use their points. Given how few airlines let you put tickets on hold (Korean and Virgin Atlantic both come to mind), a slow transfer like SPG's means that you risk marooning your points if you transfer them and the award vanishes by the time your points show up. This has actually happened to me and it's stressful and irritating.
UPDATE (Dec 2018): The first real-world tests of transfer times are coming in, looks like a few o…

saving money with Ebates hotels

I've posted before about my general feeling about hotels. The short version is that I don't really like western "posh" hotels because they're expensive and yet they still don't offer the amenities I actually want:  in-room espressoa Toto Washlet in the rooma free, communal hot spring bath that's open late so I can soak my feet after a long day of sightseeingliquor vending machine so I don't have to pay $47 (and wait 45 minutes) for two gin and tonics from room serviceon-site laundry machines In other words, I'm annoyed that Japanese businessman hotel mainstays like APA and Dormy Inn are (largely) only in Japan.

When I do have to stay at a western hotel I generally try to save some money or at least snag some bonus points. There are a lot of ways to do that – search with Rocketmiles, look for Amex offers, use's "say 10 nights, get one night free", etc. On our recent trip to Israel, though, I tried a new way and it worked …

Surprise domestic lie-flats outside the normal NYC-SFO/LAX routes

We're repeating last year's holiday routine this year – from New York to Phoenix, then to Portland, then back to New York. We fly Economy domestically most of the time, but during the holidays it's so crazy that we usually spring for First just to avoid some of the mayhem that comes with winter holidays and airports.

New York to LA and SF have their glamorous Mint and P.S. planes, but most other west coast cities generally have normal domestic recliners in First. Then there's the added annoyance that nearly all of the eastbound flights are redeyes, and since I'm a very light sleeper, I despise redeyes unless I can lay down.

But in all of this poking around for holiday flights I found two interesting ones I didn't know existed:
A United 757 with lie-flat seats to Phoenix (flight 230 leaving JFK at 19:30) A Delta 757 with lie-flats on a direct flight from PDX to JFK (flight 1756 at 12:49). Near as I can tell, this flight is seasonal.

I logged on to to …

Data point: Bonus points from amex AT&T offer

Just a quick note to confirm that I've been able to get the 5,000 point "AT&T Wireless For Business" Amex Offer bonus by making a $151 payment to my AT&T personal account. I've done the $151 charge twice now and got the 5,000 bonus both times. I think the offer expires at the end of November, but AT&T lets you overpay your cellular bill and the negative balance carries forward, so you should still be able to take advantage of it if you haven't already.

Apple’s new “gold” MacBook Air matches the new Amex “Rose Gold” card

I just left the Apple Keynote in Brooklyn, where they just announced a major overhaul to the MacBook Air. The gamut of the screen they used in the theater made the new laptop look orange and I got super excited. Once I got to the press hands-on area though I realized that it was the same ambiguous “gold” color as the new Apple Watch.

Just for fun and comparison (the lighting in there was crazy), I pulled out my new Rose Gold Amex to compare... and, well, one man’s "gold" is another man’s "rose gold", apparently.

If it had been bright metallic orange it would have been a no-brainer to get the new Air but now I'm kinda torn between this and the new iPad Pro with the keyboard case. Adobe now has a full version of Photoshop running on the iPad Pro and their demo blew everyone away when she moved from a flat Photoshop image seamlessly into an animated augmented reality.

Well, I'm still trying to hit the minimum spend for the bonus on that new Rose Gold card,…

Hooray! Amex Rose Gold card counts my local greengrocer as "Supermarket"!

After upgrading my Gold card to Platinum at the beginning of this year, I was actually sorta bummed that I no longer had a card that got me a bonus on groceries. I did the math and we spend around $8,000 a year on groceries, and that's a decent amount of points to leave on the table by not earning some kind of multiplier.

Then Amex "rebooted" the Gold card to help it compete with the Chase Sapphire line and they added a 4x bonus on "Supermarkets". Lots of the professional bloggers were sloppily reporting that this as a "groceries" category, even though the Terms and Conditions explicitly mention that there's no bonus at Costco or other warehouse clubs. I don't shop at those kinds of places, instead I try my hardest to buy everything at our local neighborhood gem, Essex Market. This place is the heart and soul of Manhattan's Lower East Side, and I love supporting the small Dominican and Chinese grocers under its roof. There's no way I w…

Warning: new Uber payment bucket breaks Amex Platinum credits

While I do love me a good Amex Offer as much as the next person, I despise how they rely on "breakage" for so many of their card benefits – i.e., they intentionally erect flaming hoops customers have to jump through with the hope that most people won't be bothered.

The Platinum card's Uber benefit is a prime example – a $15 credit (with a one-month expiration date) is added to your account at the beginning of each month. Since upgrading to the platinum six-ish months ago, I've had nothing but trouble trying to use this credit. Considering many people only use Uber for expensive rides to the airport, i'd vastly prefer a $90 credit every six months to this ridiculous setup.

(Sidenote: since you can only use this Uber credit for rides in the US, I'd prefer it be a Lyft credit)

UPDATE (25 Oct '18): Ugh, it's worse than I initially thought. Uber required me to "top off" my Uber Cash account with $25 because my estimated ride cost exceeded the…

Korean Airlines availability

I love Korean Air's Skypass mileage program, and let me tell you the top 3 reasons why: availability, availability, availability. Sadly, booking award travel with most airlines usually involves major compromises on dates. If you want that Saver reward seat on the cool new plane with the lie-flat seat and the fancy champagne and the amazing lounge, it means you're going to have to cut your trip short by several days, or waste a day and a half of your trip flying a 2-stop itinerary through cities you don't want to stop in. With Korean, there was always at least one flight every single day with open Business or First seats so you never had to compromise like that.

Furthermore, Incheon airport's luggage storage service meant you could intentionally schedule yourself a 10-hour layover and then hop into Seoul for a graze through the Namdaemun market and a stroll through Cheonggyecheon before heading onward to Tokyo or Manila or Taipei.

Well then the Sapphire Reser…

I saved $400 on a domestic flight by BUYING Amex points

I needed to go from NYC to Louisville, KY and I couldn't find dates and times on the direct flight I wanted for less than $735 in Economy. I looked at other options, but even a 2 stop itinerary at crappy flight times was still well north of $500.

I poked around a bit on British Airways' website and found a great 15,000 point option for a direct American Airlines flight with exactly the dates and times I wanted. But there was one small problem: my BA and Amex point balances were both near zero.

I'd read recently that Amex started selling Membership Rewards points again (they'd stopped for a while) so I called in to inquire about buying some. The agent informed they're 2.5¢ each and there's an annual cap on how many you can buy. He also told me you can only do this by phone and only as part of an actual points transfer to an airline that the Amex rep initiates for you.

With that awesome 40% transfer bonus happening right now, I only needed 11,000 miles for this …

Time to re-evaluate our credit card lineup

Despite being active on Reddit's credit card churning forums, I don't actually churn very often. Our vacation time is throttled by work, and if I earn too many points beyond what I need, I get tempted to do stupid things with them.

The other looming variable on the horizon is that JetBlue's Mint has become so wildly successful that United's competing P.S. service is now occasionally pricing out well below Mint in my husband's employer's travel portal, which might mean he'll have to start flying United again

Right now I have:
Platinum AmexChase Sapphire ReserveJetBlue Plus Mastercard Authorized User card on my husband's account My husband has:
an Authorized User card on my Amex Platinumhis own Chase Sapphire ReserveJetBlue Plus cardStarwood Luxury card  JetBlue, verdict: Keep The nice thing about the JetBlue card is that it's from Barclays, and it supports a mode called "Chip + Signature with PIN backup". In my personal experience, this l…

Using Amex transfer bonus for great intra-Asia redemptions

We're going to Japan to ride the Shiki Shima train and I've booked the long legs of the trip: New York to Hong Kong and then Taipei to New York (we're bookending the trip to Japan with long weekends in two of our favorite places). But now we need to book the short legs between those two places and Japan.

One of my weak spots with booking award travel is doing crazy-but-legal routings and stopovers. I'd used British Airways points for the Hong Kong leg, and BA prices all award travel by leg so there were no points to be saved by spending an hour on the phone with a call center trying to get an agent to book me a single flight with a multi-day layover in Hong Kong en route to Japan. (TIP: There's a great online Avios calculator here).

Hong Kong to Tokyo I priced out the flights and found a lot of Ultra Low Cost Carriers (ULCC) offering this flight for US$150-ish (a.k.a. $350 once you pay the surcharges for seats, bags, oxygen, and toilets), but we wanted to fly in B…

Getting to Japan for the Shiki-Shima trip

Given that we paid for the only big international trip we've taken this year, our points balances have been growing. When we got the good news about the Shiki Shimi lottery, our point balances totaled 1.3 million across all programs. Since the mantra is "earn and burn", it was time to blow some of these before the next round of devaluations happens.

Buy My normal process is to hit up Google Flights to make sure we aren't missing a great deal. Long story short: there were no great deals, even with us being super flexible about how we got there – Manila, Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong, or Taipei all would have been great connection points.

At this point I should mention a couple of general rules about purchasing flights to Asia:
One ways cost as much as (or more) than round-trips, so make sure you have some kind of plan for how you're getting back if you decide to buy only one leg on points.Direct flights always cost more. Fly to Manila through Taipei: $2500; fly that…

Sweet! We won the Shiki Shima lottery!

Japan has a number of fun, tourist-oriented excursion trains – vintage steam locomotives, open-air summer trains, Sanrio and anime-themed trains, and high-end luxury "cruise" trains.

A couple years ago, the latest and greatest version of the latter was announced – the four seasons Shiki Shima cruise train. Rather than relying on vintage looks, the Shiki Shima is boldly modern. There are two "cruises" you can take – a 2 day and a 4 day. There's a view car, a gorgeous restaurant, a bar, and the entire train only holds 34 passengers!

UPDATE: our trip report from this amazing journey is here!

Given that Japan is a nation of train nerds, demand was insane despite the sky-high prices. They implemented a lottery system for people hoping to buy tickets. With both of our 50th birthdays coming up, I decided to enter for a shot at this amazing experience. I've been on pins and needles for the past 3 months, but the email arrived a couple of days ago:

I had originally …