Saturday, February 13, 2016

Time Flies - Passport Renewal Time

My current U.S. passport photo was taken literally within 3 weeks of my birth. I'm almost 4.5 years old now, and I look pretty different these days. But more importantly, my child passport is set to expire November 30, 2016.

While it may seem like I have plenty of time to apply for a renewal passport, consider the following:

1. Many countries require you to have at least 6 months of validity left before allowing you to enter. Therefore, I should have my new one by May 30, 2016.
2. Factoring in that it can take up to 6-8 weeks to process, we should be applying no later than March 31, 2016.

But since we're not planning to go outside the country over the next few months, we thought it made sense to apply for my renewal now, so that I'd be ready to travel internationally for my school's Spring Break in late April.

As you may recall, I had to apply for my passport in person with both of my parents. Given I'm still not 16 years old yet, that rule still applies.

Step 1 - Print your forms
So my father went online and found a web-version of the DS-11 form that we need to fill out. Mostly it was just basic information such as full legal name, address, phone number, social security number, etc. Since we had to go in person, you to save it as a PDF and print it out with you (single sided).

Step 2 - Submit your forms.
We were told:

"For Minors under Age 16 you must establish proof of citizenship AND proof of relationship between the child applicant and the parent(s)/guardian(s). Previous U.S. passports are not acceptable as proof of relationship."

So we'll bring an original birth certificate (which we were going to need anyway).

Step 3 - Where to submit
By clicking on the Locate button, we found several post offices and passport centers near us with information about (a) when they're open, (b) if you need an appointment and (c) if they do photos there.

Step 4 - What to submit
As you can see in the infographic, we'll need a passport photo, a check for the $105 in total fees ($85 for the passport and another $25 for processing), proof of my U.S. Citizenship and proof of parent's relationship including their photo IDs.

It's important to note that for my Proof of U.S. Citizenship, I need to give them both (a) the original certified certificate and (b) a photocopy of both the front AND back. Fortunately, my father had ordered 4 original copies when I was born, so we had backups. Smart dad!

Now I just need to practice my poses for my new passport photo. I wonder if they'll allow some sassy shots.

UPDATE 3/4/2016:  Definitely did not need to pay any expedite fee as we received our passport back within just 16 calendar days after submitting it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Retention Year 3

Every year, my father calls up his favorite banks and asks if there were any offers to compel him to keep their credit cards open for another year. After all, when you have as many credit cards as my family does, spending $95 every year for each premium credit card can start to add up. So either (a) the banks will have to give him more than that in value each year or (b) will have to waive the fee.

This past year there was also a lot of turbulence in the hotel/airline world, including the announced acquisition of Starwood Hotels. This development changes our strategy because my family has several SPG American Express cards each with a $95 annual fee. We used to think we'd keep this card forever, but assuming the SPG program goes away, the Amex card will hold little value to us.

Additionally, we likely won't fly enough on paid flights this year to qualify for United Gold status. As such, the United Select Visa (which used to help my father re-qualify for Gold each year and offers 3x on United spend) has less value to us than in prior years.

So these "must have" cards have lost some luster, especially if we can't get Amex and Chase to offer some special retention promotion to offset the fees. Recall that 2 years ago, my father received 2,000 SPG points in exchange for paying the $65 annual fee (now $95) for his SPG Amex and an additional 5,000 United miles for paying the $95 annual fee for his United Select Visa.

But every year is different.

Last year, there was no offer for the SPG Amex card but a $100 statement credit for his United Select Visa. So we weren't sure what to expect in 2016 when my father called.

Starwood American Express
After saying he wasn't sure about keeping the card for another year after the $95 annual fee posted, the first Amex representative immediately transferred my father to an Account Specialist. But the Specialist could only offer him a $25 statement credit this year.

Despite my father's concerns over the continuation of the SPG program following the Marriott transaction, the Specialist didn't have anything else to compensate for the annual fee. He did, however, suggest that there would be an incentive for those SPG cardholders to convert to another Amex product if/when the Marriott transaction closed and the SPG loyalty program ends. Since Marriott is the larger company and has a historic relationship with Chase, the likely scenario would be that American Express would have to shut down the SPG Amex product line and see if cardholders would be willing to convert to another comparable Amex product, such as their Membership Rewards card or the Hilton Amex cards.

While he obviously had no inside information, he referred to Costco Amex holders receiving a promotion of up to $200-300 for converting their Costco Amex cards to Sam's Club Amex cards after Costco terminated their Amex relationship and switched to Citi.

So my father took the $25 statement credit and will see what conversion offer comes down the road later this year.

[UPDATE 2/12/16:  We called back for another matter completely - to pre-authorize a very significant charge in excess of our credit limit. We mentioned that last time we did this transaction, it was declined despite calling ahead to pre-authorize it. We didn't expect anything other than allowing the transaction to go through, but to our surprise, the phone agent also said she would give us 2,000 SPG points as a loyalty credit. Not too shabby!]

Chase United Select
Chase was his next call and unfortunately, not a great outcome. He was greeted by a friendly customer service representative who outlined the valuable benefits of this outdated card (which is no longer offered), including 3x on purchases as well as 2x on restaurants, transportation and home improvement stores.

However, the $95 fee wasn't ideal, so he said he was thinking of cancelling the card.

The agent countered with an opportunity to downgrade to a no-fee United card that would earn 1 mile for every $2 spend. Given my father could earn 2% cash back on every $1 spend with his Citi DoubleCash card, this new offer wasn't attractive at all. No thank you, Chase.

Instead of cancelling, though, my father decided to hang up and call again (HUCA) in another week.

[UPDATE 2/12/16:  We called back and this time, sounded more certain that we were going to close the account. They agent immediately offered a $60 statement credit or to downgrade to the no-fee version. We took the statement credit.]

Chase Sapphire Preferred
My mother had a $95 annual fee on her Chase Sapphire Preferred card as well. We hardly ever use this card and only applied because of the 40,000 UR point sign up bonus. Relative to the other card products out there, earning 2x on dining and travel is the average, not a highlight.

Instead of closing, however, we decided to keep the $35,000 available credit line and convert the card into a no-fee Chase Freedom card.

Even though my mother already has a Freedom card, having a second one would allow her to earn more 5% bonus categories each quarter. When they offer 5x on groceries, for example, we'll definitely find ways to pre-spend at our usual stores via gift cards to use over the rest of the calendar year.

We still have to call Citi (for my mother's American Airlines Amex) and Barlcays (for my father's US Airways Mastercard), but we'll see how customer friendly those banks are.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Travel Year In Review

Well, it's the last day of 2015, and we've had another amazing year. Click here for the 2014 recap.

Since my father's an Asian math nerd, according to his excel spreadsheet, I have:

1. Flown approximately 33,825 miles this year (vs. 51,422 last year)
2. Taken 23 flight segments (vs. 26 last year) with only 2 longer than 8 hours
3. Flown out of 14 airports (vs. 16 last year)
4. On 2 different airlines (vs. 6 last year)
5. Traveled to 4 foreign countries (vs. 6 last year)
6. Earned United Silver status

The biggest takeaways were that we really decided to stay "local" this year oftentimes driving instead of flying. Further, unlike 2013 and 2014, we only left the country a few times in 2015. Once was a spring break to Cancun. Then we had our annual trip to visit extended family Israel (stopping in Belgium on the way home). The other was our early Christmas trip to Costa Rica a few weeks ago.

On the hotel side, we have:

1. Stayed 52 nights in hotels this year
2. Across 20 different cities
3. In 14 unique hotel brands

Our most frequent brand was Westin (18 nights across Orlando, suburban Chicago, Cancun, Kansas City and Scottsdale). We re-qualified for Starwood Platinum status, and matched to Hyatt Diamond and Hilton Diamond statuses for 2016. And we didn't realize until just now that this year we went to see baseball games at the stadiums for each of the World Series teams, the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets.

 So as we close out the year, here's a photo snapshot of our favorite lapchild adventures this year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hilton Diamond Status Match

As you LCD readers know, my father is a huge SPG loyalist, though he's been known to cheat with Hyatt from time to time.

But when Hyatt started matching to their top tier Diamond status last month, Hilton also jumped into the fray as well. For convenience, you can request the Hilton HHonors Diamond status match online here until January 11, 2016.

So my father signed up and submitted a jpg file of his SPG Platinum Account page. This morning, he received this email.

We've had some nice Hilton stays in the past few years where we definitely enjoyed the complimentary breakfasts, including:

1. December 2015 - Hilton Garden Inn Liberia Costa Rica
2. February 2015 - Doubletree Charleston, SC
3. June 2014 - Hilton Zurich, Switzerland
4. April 2014 - Conrad Hong Kong
5. February 2013 - Conrad Koh Samui, Thailand

That being said, Hilton's Diamond status isn't that much better than the mid-tier Gold status that my parents already had through their Citi Hilton Reserve Visa credit card. Even with Gold, they receive complimentary breakfast and in-room wifi, so the top tier Diamond just earns you more HHonors points and possibly increases your chances at a complimentary room upgrade.

Regardless, we thought that we might be frequenting non-Starwood hotels in 2016 (given the pending Marriott acquisition), so we might as well try out some Hilton properties while holding Diamond status.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Equinox Resort - New Family Tradition?

Hotel Details
Hotel: The Equinox Resort & Spa
Dates: December 24-26, 2015
Rate Paid: 6,000 SPG points + $160 per night
Room Upgrade: Bi-Level Suite
Regular Room Rate: $693/night 
Saved: $533/night
Redemption: 8.9 cents/point

Back in December 2011 (literally, just a few short weeks after I was born), my parents and my maternal grandmother decided to take me on my first trip. It was Christmas time 2011, and they had been learning how to handle me as a crying newborn infant for the past few weeks. My father thought we could use a change of scenery and booked a few nights at The Equinox in Manchester, Vermont for the holidays.

That year, it was quite cold and the snow had sprinkled over the mountains and we enjoyed a charming countryside White Christmas as a new family.

Four years later, my father decided it would be nice to return to the Equinox for the holidays. Aside from a small Christmas tree in our living room (see below), we don't really "go all out" with the holiday decorations, so we were excited about being somewhere else where they did.

So we invited my aunt and my paternal grandmother and drove up together 5 hours to Manchester, VT the morning of Christmas Eve. While we had hoped for another White Christmas, the weather was actually about 72 degrees in New York City and not much cooler in Vermont. But they had the most stunning New England sunset as we pulled up to the quaint little Main Street.

The hotel was historic to say the least. Their website discusses how it was visited by 4 U.S. Presidents over its 200 years in existence, including Presidents William Howard Taft, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Harrison.

My father had used his Starwood points to book two rooms using Cash & Points, offering a pretty great value versus paying cash outright. Since it was a 2 night stay over Christmas Eve and Christmas, the cash rates were $693 / night for a regular room. Normally, you could get rates for $200-300/night. So using SPG points to offset the cost made a ton of sense.

Note: the Equinox has a $35 per night resort fee for each room that is not waived even for SPG Platinum members on award bookings. Per the website, "the Resort Fee of $35 per night includes the following amenities and services: unlimited valet parking, bottled water in room, wireless internet service, use of the business center, local telephone calls, in-town shuttle for shopping and dining, morning coffee and newspaper in the common area, access to 850 acres of hiking trails at the Equinox Preservation Trust, use of the Golf Club putting green, resort bicycles, tennis courts, sleds seasonally, use of the spa fitness center, pool, steam rooms, and the sauna."

Nevertheless, we were excited to spend a few nights in the Vermont mountains in a charming, historic hotel over Christmas.

Prior to our arrival, my father applied 4 of his SPG Suite Night Upgrades to get all of us into larger suites. Unfortunately, only one of the room upgrade requests cleared (Room 350), so my father offered the "Ulysses S Grant Suite" to my grandmother. She said it was silly to put me in the smaller room, so she declined and said they'd be fine in the regular room (Room 340).

The Ulysses S. Grant Suite was set up as a regular sized room on the first floor, but had a staircase that led you to a loft like living room upstairs. It was nice to have some extra space, but I'm not sure it was worthy of a U.S. President.

We settled into our rooms and got ready for dinner. They offered three restaurants in the hotel, the buffet style Colonnade (breakfast & dinner), Marsh Tavern (casual fare) and the Chop House (higher end steakhouse). Interestingly enough, the Marsh Tavern and Chop House shared the same entrance with just a open wall partition separating the two dining rooms. If you didn't notice the different furniture, you may not have realized they were in fact different restaurants.

Each morning, we enjoyed a complimentary SPG Platinum continental breakfast offered at the Colonnade (fresh fruits, pastries, cured meats and a large selection of gourmet cheeses). If we wanted to upgrade to the full hot buffet, including an omelette station, then you could pay the $5.50/person upcharge. Alternatively, you could also select items of the a la carte menu and spend up to $48/room, but that had to include tax and mandatory tip, so it was really closer to a $40 credit off the menu.

As you might imagine, most of the guests this Christmas weekend were families (many from NYC). When we checked in, they handed out different schedules of kid-friendly activities each day. Each day, they had several different movies playing in one of the banquet rooms, including Minions and Frozen. In the adjacent room, there were empty tables and board games for families to borrow and play as they wanted. They also had free coffee, hot chocolate and hot apple cider throughout the day for everyone.

Given the relaxing environment, we often found many guests simply sitting around one of the many fireplaces, reading newspapers or books when they weren't enjoying the large indoor pool and spa on the property (note, pool and spa are housed in a separate building so you will have to walk outside).

My favorite activity, however, was putting small notes on one of the many Christmas trees around the resort.

But the main Christmas Tree was the one at the base of the stairs by the Marsh Tavern and Chop House restaurants. This tree was the same one that I stood by when I was just 1 month old years ago.

Have I changed much since then?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Costa Rican Souvenirs

Photo Credit: NY Times
Before we left for our Costa Rican winter vacation, my father did some research. This was actually his third trip to the Central American country, but it was the first time for my mother and me. So he did what any protective father would do, go online and research what vaccinations and precautions we should take.

First, we needed Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations. Fortunately, my annual pediatrician appointment in November coincided well so I was able to get my shots there as a part of my routine vaccination program.

My mother had her Hep A, but needed a Typhoid shot. And since my father's last Typhoid shot was in 2008, he needed another as well. And for these vaccines to work, they should be given at least 2 weeks prior to travel.

With over a month to go, my parents looked up Travel Vaccination clinics online and came across Passport Health. They had great Google Search Engine Optimization, but were very troublesome to schedule a convenient appointment time (even a month out). In addition to the $120 cost for the shot, it would also cost an additional $50 per person for a required "consultation" which we didn't need.

Then, on the morning of our scheduled appointment, they called in sick (ironic, huh?) and couldn't reschedule us for a few days. That inconvenience ended up being a blessing in disguise, as we soon found out that a nearby Walgreens had the vaccine in stock and could give us the shot without the onerous consultation fee. We just paid the retail price for the vaccine ($99/shot).

Now that we were protected from Hepatitis A and Typhoid, we needed some protection from the hoards of mosquitoes that plague this part of the world. Malaria wasn't a concern, but itchy bug bites can really be annoying.

So my father purchased some Natrapel Wipes on Amazon. As anyone who has used citronella sprays can tell you, they don't really work. The heavy chemical DEET is exceptionally effective, but can be dangerous, especially to toddlers.

That's why we went with Natrapel which uses Picaridin, instead of DEET, but just as effective at repelling bugs. They last 8 hours and get great reviews. They should still be used carefully and adults should apply them for their children, but we felt it was much safer than playing with DEET.

The first few days, my parents (at least my father) used the Natrapel wipes extensively on their arms and legs. And the mosquito bites were very minimal, usually during hours we were swimming prior to applying the wipes or after our evening showers when we washed off the repellent.

Then the final morning of our trip, we decided not to use the Natrapel wipes (since we'd just be having breakfast and heading to the airport). Well, when we arrived home, my father's arms looked like they were ravaged by those Costa Rican mosquitoes!

So I guess those wipes worked very well, but only when they're actually used.