Monday, September 30, 2013

Hong Kong Hotel Hopping

Yes, our trip to Hong Kong isn't for ~6 months, but if you're travel hacking like my family, it helps to think far ahead. Especially when we'll be using credit card sign up bonuses and hotel points to offset our travel costs.

Hotels in major cities like New York, Paris and Hong Kong can get quite expensive. While we could have just decided to stay at a modest budget hotel in Hong Kong (or used AirBNB to find a local apartment with a kitchen), my father decided to use a few of his free night awards to get another taste of high living for our Spring Break.

Unfortunately, the two nice Starwood hotels in Hong Kong (the Sheraton and W) were too expensive even on points (16,000-20,000 pts/night). Also, he didn't have any single hotel awards that would cover our full 5 night stay in Hong Kong, so we had to break up the nights across 3 different hotels: (A) Grand Hyatt, (B) Conrad, and (C) Intercontinental. But as you can see from the map below, they are all relatively close, and then we can give you our first hand reviews on each of them.

Here's how we're planning to get the 5 free nights at these great luxury hotels.

Grand Hyatt (3/6-3/8)

We booked our first two nights here using our Hyatt Gold Passport points (22,000 Hyatt points per night). That same room would cost $542/night including taxes. So for two nights, we'd need 44,000 Hyatt points. We had about 42,000 in our account, so we just transferred 2,000 over from our Chase Ultimate Rewards account and booked the room.

Unfortunately, though, my father's great 2013 Hyatt Diamond Elite Status year will come to an end just before the trip (on February 28, 2014). But missing out on free upgrades to suites and complimentary breakfasts shouldn't be a deal killer when you're staying in a major city. After all, we don't plan to spend much time in our hotel room nor do we want to waste an opportunity to eat delicious Hong Kong dim sum by filling up on generic scrambled eggs and boring pancakes.

Conrad (3/8-3/10)

Strategically, we planned to spend the Saturday and Sunday nights at the Conrad, the luxury brand within the Hilton Hotels family.

Why? Because for signing up for the Citi Hilton Reserve credit card and spending $2,500 in 3 months, you receive 2 free weekend night certificates. The cash rate for the rooms would be $433/night including taxes. I've heard mixed things about the quality of the Conrad Hong Kong. While it's better suited for business travelers, I do hope that the high level of service (and our Hilton Gold Status from having the Citi Hilton Reserve card) will make it worthwhile. They say the executive club lounge (free appetizers and drinks) is one of the best in Hong Kong if not the world.

Intercontinental (3/10-3/11)

This hotel is likely going to be our favorite. Located on the Kowloon side of the city, it will have some of the best views of the famous Hong Kong skyline from it's lobby (and hopefully room if we get a Victoria Harbor view).

This room usually runs $493/night, but we're staying there for free using our IHG Free Night Award that comes every year when you have the IHG Rewards Club Visa credit card. Pretty great deal, even if you have to pay the $49 annual fee for the credit card. Unfortunately, having the IHG Rewards card will only get you top tier IHG Platinum Status, but the Intercontinental has its own loyalty program called Royal Ambassador (which you can purchase for $200). So basically, my IHG Platinum won't get us anything special at the Intercontinental (besides a $493/night room for $49).

Here's some lap child math for all of you ...

3 Credit Cards = Free Nights at 3 Luxury Hotels = More Money for Hong Kong Dim Sum

And what credit cards did my mother just apply for?  The Citi Hilton Reserve Visa and the Chase IHG Visa. Do you think that's just coincidence?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mom's September Credit Card Churn

"Ugh, another credit card application?"
So this week (after about 3 months of her last credit card churn), my father mother decided she would apply for a few hotel co-branded credit cards to start earning some free nights/points for our upcoming trips. My mother wanted to apply for at least 2-3 cards, so she went for the following:

1. Citi Hilton Reserve Card (2 free nights)
2. Chase IHG Rewards Card (80,000 points)
3. Barclays World Arrivals Card (40,000 points)

So after spending about $4,500 over the next 3 months, our family would get (a) 2 free nights in almost any Hilton hotel in the world, (b) 80k in IHG points which would be good for another 2-3 nights in any Intercontinental hotel in the world and (c) 40k Barclay miles which would be good for $440 of free travel spend (flights, car rentals, train tickets, etc). Total haul, worth about $2,000 of potential value at least for just 3 minutes of credit card applications.

The Key Application Questions (Income and Rent)

Usually, my mother would have just filled out the application using my parent's collective household income. But as a test to report back to all you LCD readers, she applied using just her own implied income.

I say "implied" because she's a wonderful stay at home mother but doesn't actually earn money for this 24/7 career. However, credit card companies generally don't like Home-Makers or Unemployed applicants, so I would avoid choosing those options in the drop down menu.

My mother prefers to be "self-employed" as she runs Songer Childcare as the owner/founder. In calculating her annual income, we just applied some rough estimate of what her dedicated labor and effort would be worth to a comparable Manhattan family. We came up with $30,000 of annual income for this self-employed working mother to be conservative though anyone will tell you that the job deserves $1,000,000,000,000. But I digress.

Next, we had to fill in our monthly apartment rental expense. Here's where it gets tricky. Apparently, the way the online application is set up, these home-making individuals would seem to have to report the full amount of the monthly housing payments on their card application (as if their income was the only source to pay for the full monthly housing cost).

So these individuals would get 0% benefit from their spouse's income, but bore the full 100% brunt of their housing costs. That combination usually meant an automatic denial from any major credit card issuing bank.

And as my mother applied for the Chase and Citi cards above, she filled out the forms that way. Modest individual income, but relatively high monthly rent expense. As we soon found out later, based on that simple ratio, the banks determined she couldn't support having credit extended to her and she was denied on her applications.

But each bank has a customer service team that focuses on credit card applications that you can call to either (a) check the status of a pending decision (so you can provide more information) or (b) ask them to re-consider a decline decision if alternative measures could be taken (i.e., closing an existing card as a trade). They are usually credit analysts that underwrite the risk, but we've also found some of them to be just call center people who input information into the computers that do the actual credit risk assessment.

Citi Reconsideration Call

My mother called Citi (800-695-5171 – Personal Application Status and Reconsideration Line with live rep). This conversation was expected to go smoothly once my mother offered to shift some of her available credit on her existing Citi American Airlines credit card over to the new Hilton Reserve card.

However, the representative was fixed on the fact that her income wasn't high enough to support the monthly rent. Then my mother asked if the Citi representative would speak to my father instead (since his command of English and credit card acumen was higher).

"Hi, I understand the rent seems high relative to her income, but that's because I make a majority of our family income and pay the rent."

"Is her name on the lease?"

"I think so."

"OK then, if something were to happen to you, she would still be 100% liable for those payments, so we can't approve her."

"But you're not giving any credit to the fact that I make enough to pay for the rent."

"Sir, we only look at the individual's income and because she's on the lease, we have to look at 100% of that monthly payment."

My father then gave the Citi rep an earful about how she's always been paying on time and in full, has a great credit score, and would be the beneficiary of a large amount of money if "something happened to my father." He even gave her estimated amounts of their collective savings and bank accounts (joint, of course). Still, the Citi underwriting computer said, "No."

So then my father asked, "If she's not on the lease, would she then put $0 for the monthly rent on the online application form?"

The representative confirmed and an idea formulated in my father's scheming brain (to be continued...)

Chase Reconsideration Call

So my mother then called Chase (888-245-0625 – Personal Reconsideration Line with a live rep), but this time was much better prepared. The representative said that her income wasn't high enough relative to the fixed debt payments. When my mother asked which debt payments, they replied it was the rent expense. So my father got on the phone again.

"Hi, sir, I understand the rent seems high relative to her income, but that's because I make a majority of our family income and pay the rent."

"Does she pay any of the rent?"

Though he knew my mother was on the lease, that wasn't the wording of the specific question asked."Nope, I pay 100% of the rent," replied my father slyly.

"OK then, let me update that in our systems. Can you please hold a few minutes?"


"Congratulations, you've been approved!"

Barclays Reconsideration 

Unfortunately, the reason Barclays (888-232-0780 – General Card Services and Application Line, dial option 3 for application status) denied my mother's application was on account of too many recent card openings since 2012. On their system, he said there were at least 7 cards opened up in the past year and a half. Typically, they want a maximum of only 2, maybe 3 newly opened cards in the past 2 years.

Despite all my father's protests, there was no way they would change their minds. Well, something to save for a 2015 churn.

Citi Reconsideration Part 2

So the next day, my mother called back to the Citi Reconsideration number. She then asked the representative speak with my father.

"Sir, we confirmed and I'm the only one on the lease," my father immediately told them.

"OK, let me update that in our files and re-run the credit approval. It could take 2-3 minutes, so please hold."

Within 60 seconds, the agent approved my mother's credit card application and said she would receive the card next week. Success!

Recap/Tips for Your Next Churn
  1. Just put your combined household income as your individual income (which apparently seems to be the new law according to the NY Times). An IRS joint tax return would support that claim; or
  2. Not having your name on the lease/mortgage would mean you should put $0 of monthly housing expense.
And believe it or not, most credit card companies will just take your word for it, because secretly they want you to have their credit cars so you can spend money and generate them merchant bank fees.

Monday, September 23, 2013

United BusinessFirst Back Home

Flight #65 – United 91 
Tel Aviv (TLV) – Newark (EWR)
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Depart: 11:10PM / Arrive: 4:20AM (+1 Day)
Duration: 12hr 10min 
Aircraft: Boeing 777
Seat: 5A and 5B (BusinessFirst)
Earned: 0 miles (5,692 miles flown)
Cost: 100,000 miles + $44 taxes / person
Redemption Value: 2.8 cents / mile 
Lifetime Miles: 129,919 miles

After a great week with my extended family in Israel, we're back home and ready to get back to reality. My father's got his meetings and conference calls. My mother's starting some part time work this week. And I'm starting daycare/pre-school (3 days a week) tomorrow.

For the past 22+ months, I've been with my parents almost 24/7 with the occasional date night breaking my consecutive hour streak from time to time. Candidly, I could probably use a break from them, so I'm sort of looking forward to making some toddler friends at "school."

But at the same time, it does take me some time to warm up to new people (a trait I inherited from my mother), so I'm sure the first few days will be more emotionally demanding than I'm expecting. But don't worry, I'm not going to one of those crazy intense uber elite Manhattan pre-schools that you may have heard about. As my 30-something father says, "we're keeping it real" (as if people still use that expression) and going for an educationally oriented day care just a few blocks away from our apartment.

I suppose, insecure white some people say my academic trajectory could be severely derailed forever based on the course I set out when I'm 2 years old. But as my father likes to remind me, I'm half Asian so I'm gonna be pretty damn smart no matter what school I go to. And if I'm lucky enough to get my mother's looks (and height), then I'm hopefully not going to have to scramble for a last minute Senior Prom date like my father did back in the late 1990's.

As for our family travels, we're planning on staying local for the next few weeks (and by few, I mean 3). After all, Columbus Day is just around the corner...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

TLV Airport and the Dan Lounge

Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport is one of the most secure in the world. In fact, from the moment you park your car, you may go through 6 different security check points of one kind or another.

1. Metal detectors at the entrances.
2. Checked bag x-rays before checking in for your flight.
3. Possibly additional checked bag swabbing for chemicals.

Then you get to wait in line to check in for your flight, get your boarding passes and check your luggage.

4. Standard security screening with metal detectors and x-ray for carry on luggage.
5. Exit Customs to check your passports.
6. Additional screening at the gate just before you board your flight.

In general, my parents like to get to TLV airport 3 hours before the flight departure time, just to be safe in case there's a long line in any one of the security checkpoints mentioned above. In the 9 times my father's flown out of TLV airport, he's only cut it close the very first time. But because he got stuck in line behind a massive Israeli tour group, he did have to sprint through the airport to board his 6:15AM Turkish Airlines flight at the far end of the terminal even after arriving at 3AM, over three hours before departure!

However, all pain you have to go through to get on board does make you feel pretty confident that you're going to be safe on the flight. But if you're like my father, the constant screening and checking can drive your anxiety levels up a bit.

That's why it's nice to decompress a bit after you clear Checkpoint #5 and can make your way over to the Dan Lounge in Corridors B and C.

I won't say it rivals the amazing Turkish Airways lounge in Istanbul (which is comparable to a super luxury hotel lobby), but it does give you a comfortable place to sit for 30 minutes before boarding starts.

When you walk through the entrance, you're "greeted" by a hostile front desk who immediately accuses you of trying to sneak in without proper credentials. "Do you have a pass? Do you have a pass?" (Note, TLV airport is not a great place to respond using any of the following words: "bomb," "terrorist," or "c-nt.")

But if you have either (a) a guest pass (provided by your airline if you're flying business class) or (b) have a lounge club membership (Priority Pass, Lounge Club, United Club, Star Alliance Gold), then they relent and allow you inside to their "beautiful" long hallway of a room filled with over-entitled passengers.

Like most other lounges, the Dan Lounge offers some complimentary refreshments (soft drinks and bottled beer) as well as small snacks (rolls of bread, soups, fruits and cakes).

In addition, we've found the wireless connection to be quite strong and doesn't require an annoying password. We didn't try any Skype phone calls, but web browsing was just fine. If you don't have a laptop or tablet, you can also use one of their two computer stations. But a head's up, the computers are out in the open in the "hallway," so no surfing porn!

My Week in Israel

I don't know about my parents, but I had a great time spending the week with my grandparents and extended family in Israel. By extended family, I meant the family dog, Lord.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Carmel Winery

About 20 miles south of Haifa (where my grandparents live), you can find a quaint little town called Zikhron Ya'aqov (also spelled Zikhron Ya'akov).

We went there on Friday to tour The Carmel Winery where they make some of Israel's best wines (note the conditional qualifier). Obviously, a 22 month old toddler doesn't drink wine, but then again, neither do my parents really. But after visiting the malbec region of Mendoza in Argentina a few months ago, we like to go on wine tours/tastings because they're a nice way to spend a relaxing hour or two.

Unfortunately, we only found out about the place at 11AM and their last tour of the day was at 12PM. Fortunately, it was a quick 30 minute drive and we arrived just in time at 11:50AM.

Founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux in 1882, you definitely get the feel of the Old World. But if you're thinking the tour is comparable to something you'd find in Bordeaux, France or Napa Valley, California, then you need to manage your expectations. It's definitely not fancy or refined, but it's a very affordable way (just $4-5 USD/person, adorable toddlers are free) to spend 45 minutes learning about wine making in Israel.

The winery is located on Winery Street which goes up a hill/mountain.

They have free parking towards the bottom of the hill, then you walk up the street to the Wine Shop where they sell tickets for the tours and tastings. They did offer tours in English, but the last tour was only in Hebrew. Besides, my grandparents don't speak English.

Unfortunately, they didn't offer any tastings that day because of the Sukkot holiday, but we did get to take the small tour that took us to the basement where they used to store the traditional barrels and then to the modern stainless steel tanks they use today as well as a short film about the rich history of the vineyard.



While we didn't get to do a formal tasting, we did pick up a modestly priced bottle of chilled Riesling for about $9-10 USD and enjoyed it in their outdoor seating section. Even though my parents don't really drink wine, they could tell it wasn't a great bottle, but for $10 in Israel, we weren't expecting any hidden treasures. But it was a nice way to spend a warm summer afternoon before lunch.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Airline Fare Wars = Cheap Flight to Hong Kong

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how we decided to cancel our trip to Israel in the last few hours before departure due to the US potentially bombing Syria, and then Syria retaliating against Israel. 

Then earlier this week, I wrote about how we decided to book last minute award flights (using United miles) to salvage the remains of our trip after the US and Russia agreed on how to disarm Syria of its chemical weapon stash.

But the loose end of this story was that we still had about $2,300 worth of United credit for a future flight to use by August 1, 2014. Given our history and my father's obession with maintaining United elite status, I was sure that we'd find a way to use it over the next 10 months. Little did I know that we'd find that way in less than a week.


Cathay Pacific (the premier Hong Kong airline) had traditionally flown into the United States via Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Then on August 7, 2013, Cathay announced on Facebook and Twitter that they would be adding a 5th route to one of 4 new possible US destinations, or as one person aptly put it, "three great American cities and . . . Newark."

As it turned out, they picked Newark (EWR) over Boston, Seattle and Miami, even though they already had direct flights into New York City (JFK) and that the new route would compete directly with United's daily non-stop Newark-Hong Kong flights.

Capitalists Like Competition

My father tries to have an old school mentality. Even though he was never really a competitive person (as he puts it, "It's hard to be competitive when you have no competition"), he appreciates when an Unstoppable Force meets an Immovable Object. So when Cathay Pacific came into United's backyard, something was bound to happen.


First, Cathay started promoting the new route by offering a fare sale: "Round-trip economy class tickets from Newark to Hong Kong purchased between September 16 - 23, 2013 will be on sale from just $759 – including all taxes and fuel surcharges – for travel between March 1 – April 30, 2014." Normally, round trip flights to Hong Kong would be closer to $1,000-1,300 per person, so $759 was quite an amazing deal.

Second, United responded by offering their own $759 flights for March and April. However, oddly enough, United didn't make a big deal about it, and the "promotion" wasn't for all EWR-HKG flights during that period. It was only for Tues, Wed, and Thur departures mostly. And as of September 19, remaining availability at the $759 price was getting pretty scarce.

So after debating discussing the logistics of a 16 hour flight across a 12 hour time zone difference with my mother, my dear father decided to book a 5 night trip to Hong Kong for early March for the family (on United of course). And by "deciding," I mean he stayed up late Wednesday night while my mother and I were sound alseep and booked the tickets in secret. We only found out the next morning, though we had 24 hours to cancel without penalty, so it's not as horrible as it sounds.

Booking Using the United Credit

As I started discussing, the point of this post is tying up the loose end of the outstanding United credit. In fact, it was actually 3 different credits totaling ~$2,300.
  1. My father's credit for $1,107 that required a $300 change fee to use.
  2. My mother's credit for $1,107 that required a $300 change fee to use.
  3. My lap child credit for $96 that required a $30 change fee to use (10% of adult price).
Since we wanted to use these credits for the new tickets, my father had to call United's Reservation number and actually speak to an agent. He gave them the original Tel Aviv confirmation number so they could access that unused reservation, and the agent saw the credits and asked which flights he wanted.

My father had already priced out the HKG flights online for March 5-11 at $759 per adult. However, since I would be a 2 year old toddler in March (older than a free lap child, but still younger than a full fare adult), United priced me out at a discounted $639. It was my very first official paid seat earning me 16,120 United miles! Overall, the total fare was $2,157 for the three of us.

You would think that we could use the full $2,311 credits to fully cover the $2,157 cost of the new fare my father found online. But nope.

Issue #1: "The fare is pricing out at $923/person."

For some reason unbeknownst to me, the United agents often see very different prices on their computers than consumers do on the online websites - and often showing worse pricing. When my father asked how much the tickets were pricing out at, the agent told him $923/person. My father was thrown back, but not daunted. (Note: the very next day, online fares for those dates went up to $923/person, so perhaps the website was slow to update new pricing and we just got in as they were raising prices.)

Solution: Complete the online reservation but place it on HOLD before payment to get a confirmation code. Then have the phone agent use that confirmation code to find the reservation (with the right price) and complete the booking.

While my father was still on the phone with the agent, he quickly completed the online booking at $759/person including filling out passenger names and choosing seat assignments. He saw below that he could use the "Fare Lock" option to hold the reservation for a fee for 3-7 days, but knowing my father, he cringed at the idea of paying anything.

So instead, he continued completing the booking and when it reached the time to pay for the tickets, instead of choosing "Credit/Debit Card" like he normally would, he chose "Cash" at the far right side of the screen.

Doing so opened up another window giving him the following options to complete the purchase within the next 24 hours.
  • Visit the nearest Western Union location with your reservation number and total price of this reservation. See instructions on how to complete your purchase ($14.95 per transaction)
  • Purchase your ticket at a United Ticketing facility (a transaction fee may apply)
  • Purchase your ticket at an Airport Ticket Office (a transaction fee may apply)
But now, my father had a reservation and confirmation code which he then gave to the phone agent. The phone agent then looked up the new confirmation code and used that pricing ($759/adult).

Issue #2:  "Only one certificate can be applied for a person's new ticket."

As I mentioned before, we actually had three different United credits (two for $1,107 and one for $96). First, my father's credit was applied to his new HKG ticket leaving a balance of $348 which would be issued as an electronic travel certificate that can be used by anyone. Second, my mother's credit was applied to her new ticket and left the same balance in a second electronic certificate. (Note that I'm specifically using the terms "credit" and "certificate" for different things.)

Now, $348 x 2 = $696 which was more than enough certificate value to cover my toddler ticket ($639), but the rules stated that only 1 certificate can be used for a reservation. So I had to have a separate reservation for my ticket, and we could only use one $348 certificate to reduce my toddler ticket price down to $291.

Solution: Unfortunately, there was no trick this time. We just had to pay the $291 difference in cash (actually credit card) and then receive the 2nd e-certificate for $348 to use another time.

In addition, we still had my $96 credit outstanding. We could have used that to apply to my $639 ticket, but (A) we would have had to pay the $30 change fee and (B) it would prohibit us from applying the first $348 e-certificate. So using the credit instead of the certificate, we'd be significantly more out of pocket now, though in the long run, it all equals out.

Final Tally

Total cash out of pocket was $3,202 including everything.
  • We originally paid $2,311 for the unused Tel Aviv tickets. 
  • We had to pay two $300 change fees ($600 total).
  • We had to pay $291 for the remaining balance on the toddler ticket after using 1 certificate.
For that amount, we received:
  • 3 tickets round trip to Hong Kong in economy (earning 16,120 base miles per person).
  • One $348 e-certificate to use for a future flight (can be used for anyone).
  • My $96 credit for a future flight (must be used by me) after paying a $30 change fee.
And if you count the fact that my father will have United Gold Status in 2014 and my mother will have United Silver Status, then you can also add an additional 50% and 25% to the United miles earned for their flights.

In total, the three of us will earn 16,120 miles x (1.50+1.25+1.00) = 60,450 United miles. Assuming we can get 2-3 cents/mile of value in a future award redemption, that's like getting a rebate of $1,209-1,814. But can I get at least 2-3 cents/mile in value? Well, past performance is the only thing we can look at:
  1. Flying to Israel (September 2013): 2.8 cents/mile 
  2. Flying to Germany/France (May 2013): 3.4 cents/mile
  3. Flight to Japan/Korea (August 2012): 6.6 cents/mile
Heck, if we can get 6.6 cents/mile in value again, this Hong Kong trip would essentially be free!

Now, who's got recommendations of where to eat in Hong Kong? I've been known to be pretty good in restaurants, but for my dear parents' sake, somewhere kid-friendly would be ideal. Thoughts, anyone?