Sunday, May 25, 2014

Jack & Connor in NYC - Part 2

The next day, we went to Central Park where I took them to my favorite playground there.

Before we left, we made sure our parents took us to the Central Park Carousel.


Because we got tired, we decided to go back home in the afternoon to take a nap so we could meet up later for dinner, then walk up Fifth Avenue towards Midtown. Here are Connor and I getting some quality stroller time together while Jack and his father check out the NYC Public Library.

We then walked behind the Library to walk through Bryant Park on our way to Times Square to see all the neon lights.

Despite the crowds of tourists, Jack was able to find some more of his favorite heros and celebrities, though Spider-Man seems to have gained 50 pounds since the day before.

Monday was Memorial Day so we all had the day off. Unfortunately, Jack and Connor were also going home that afternoon, so we decided to take them for lunch to get some traditional NY pizza near our apartment. We went to a local place called Bravo (not a famous NYC pizza joint), but they definitely had a wide variety of slices for our Chicago friends.

And finally, as we had some time to kill, we went to Union Square where they had a nice children's playground where I could show Connor how to swing like a toddler.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Jack & Connor in NYC

I have a running list of new baby friends, but it's very clear that my all time favorite friends are Jack & Connor. Out of all the other kids I know, they're the only ones I talk about repeatedly. It works out great, because my parents and their parents are also best friends.

Unfortunately, they don't live in New York. They're from the northwest suburbs of Chicago, which is far enough where we can't see each other that often. But when we do, it's always a fun time for me.

This past Memorial Day weekend, they came out with their parents to visit me in Manhattan. As a proud New Yorker, I took them to all the best kid places.

Our first day, we went to Murray's Bagel for a proper New Yorker breakfast. Jack's not the most adventurous eater though, so he went with a bagel with a slice of American cheese instead of the cream cheese & lox bagel sandwich.

Then we walked past the Flatiron Building which was used as the Daily Bugle's headquarters in Jack's favorite movie, Spider-Man.

Next stop, we all hopped on the N train at 23rd Street to head uptown to Dylan's Candy Store. It was Connor & Jack's first subway ride, but they didn't seem that excited.

Saving the best for last, we then walked over to the mega famous toy store, FAO Schwartz. Amazingly, that's where Jack was able to finally meet his favorite superhero! He was speechless.


 Connor, on the other hand, was less than impressed.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mother's Latest Credit Card Churn

After a few months off, my parents are back at it racking up frequent flyer miles and hotel loyalty points. The good news is that there are still some interesting cards they can apply for. The bad news is that we're not sure how much more free time we have to spend our family's miles/points.

So far, since 2012, my mother has applied for credit cards in several different rounds, each spread out by about 3-5 months. Her most recent was in January 2014, when she was approved for the American Express Blue card (5% back on gas, grocery and drugstores) as well as the Chase British Airways Visa (100,000 BA Avios after spending $20,000 in the first year).

Then in March, my father applied for several different credit cards including the Barclays Arrival, Chase Ink Bold, Citi Thank You Premier, US Bank FlexPerks and Discover IT. By early May, we successfully hit our minimum spend requirements and collected our lucrative sign up bonuses.

So by mid-May, my mother was due for another few cards to add to her wallet (or sock drawer, as the case may be). There were a few attractive cards to apply for, including:
  • Chase Ink Plus (60,000 UR points after spending $5k; annual fee waived 1st year)
  • Citi AAdvantage Mastercard (50,000 AA miles after spending $3k; annual fee waived 1st year)
  • US Bank Club Carlson Visa (85,000 points after spending $2.5k; $75 annual fee)
A. Chase Ink Plus
My mother already had the Chase Ink Bold charge card, but the $95 annual fee was coming due in July, so she decided to take advantage of a limited time sign up bonus of 60,000 Chase UR points (normally 50,000) for the Chase Ink Plus credit card. 

At a very minimum the 60,000 UR points are worth $750 in free travel (airfare, hotels, etc) if you redeem them for the minimum 1.25 cents/point on the Chase UR travel website. However, if you have the premium Chase cards (anyone with an annual fee), then you can transfer your 60k UR points to United Airlines miles or Hyatt hotels points where you can extract 2.5-5.0 cents/point as we've done in the past (implying $1500-3,000 of redemption value)!
The Bold and Plus versions are just about the same except that the dark blue Bold is a charge card (balance must be paid in full each month) while the teal blue Plus card can hold a balance into the next periods (with interest of course). Chase considers them separate products so you can earn the sign up bonuses on each card.

As you may recall, the Ink cards are small business cards, so to successfully be approved, you need a business. Keep in mind that many businesses can be sole proprietorship (ie, no more than just 1 person) including dog walking, selling things on eBay, blogging, babysitting, etc. So my mother applied but was given a "Decision Pending." 

My father then called up the Chase Reconsideration Line and spoke with a credit analyst about my mother's account for quite some time. After verifying business information (what it does, annual income, monthly expenses, etc), they reviewed her application again, but unfortunately, given the number of past credit inquiries on her credit file, they didn't feel comfortable opening a new account for her.

My father offered to "trade in" the existing Chase Ink Bold card she currently had open, but they said that can only be done if she would otherwise be approved for the Chase Ink Plus card.

Result: FAIL

B. Citi American Airlines Mastercard
My parents never get too upset with a set back. Instead, they just march forward until they find success. So next they applied for the Citi AA Mastercard. My mother had already applied for the Amex and Visa versions of the card in 2012. Since the Mastercard would be considered a separate product, she would be eligible for the sign up bonus.

Note, the official Citi offer for their AA Mastercard is only 30,000 miles after $1k of spend with the annual fee waived. 

But thanks to the million bloggers and Flyertalk forums, we were able to find a link that would offer 50,000 miles for $3k of spend and still waiving the annual fee. So by that math, spending the additional $2k would result in an additional bonus 20,000 miles plus 2,000 miles for the regular spend. That's an incredible 11x earning on that marginal spend. No brainer!

Many people value 50,000 AA miles at around 1.8 cents/mile each, which would mean the bonus was worth $900. Of course, there are opportunities to get even more value than that.

This time during the online application, we were asked to participate in an online chat with a Citi representative to help process the application. They asked us to confirm the information we used on the application including annual income, rental expenses, etc and then my mother was approved with a $10,000 credit limit.

After hitting the $3,000 of minimum spend, we should have at least 53,000 AA miles.

Result: SUCCESS!

C. US Bank Club Carlson Premier Visa
The last card that my mother applied for was from US Bank. While it's not a popular bank or a popular hotel chain, there is a lot of value you can extract from both (1) the sign up bonus, (2) benefits of having the card and (3) annual bonus of keeping the card each year.

First, let's be clear that Club Carlson point are not worth the same as other hotel loyalty points. It's easiest to consider them a different currency, similar to 100 Japanese Yen is only worth 1 US dollar. Most people consider a CC point worth 0.8 cent each, though (as I'll mention below) you can get almost 2 cents/pt of value on select hotel redemptions. So the 85k CC points would be worth between anywhere from $680-1700 of value.

Club Carlson hotels include Radisson Blu, Radison, Park Inn and Country Inn. While these may not be the "best" brands in the United States, the international properties are much more interesting, including the May Fair in London, the Radisson Blu Resort in St. Martin; and Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Hotel. For more Club Carlson options, check out One Mile At A Time's Top 10 List. I mean, there will always be a special place in my family's heart for Starwood hotels and some amazing Hyatt properties, but who wouldn't take a free hotel night in an aspirational international city.

Here's how the Premier Visa card (not to be confused with the regular Visa) works:

For the first purchase, you earn 50,000 Carlson points. For spending $2,500 over 3 months, you earn an additional 35,000 Carlson points for 85k total. Each dollar you spend on the card earns 5x, so after spending $2,500, you should earn a grand total of 97,500 Club Carlson points.

The second best feature is that each anniversary of having the card open (after paying the $75 annual fee), you receive an additional 40,000 Carlson points (aka $320-800 of value).

The absolute best perk, however, is their "Last Night Free" on award redemptions. That means that if you use points for 2 or more nights, the final night will be free. Clearly, being half Asian, I realize that the optimal way to redeem points is to use them for 2 night stays, implying a 50% discount in points.

The Points Guy already did the work of identifying some of the best Club Carlson redemptions using this perk, which you can read about here. But for the best example, you can get a 2 night stay at the Mayfair London ($1,320 for the stay) for a total of 50,000 CC points, implying 2.6 cents/pt of redemption value.

Our online application was approved immediately and we were on our way to some free Club Carlson hotel nights!

Result: SUCCESS.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Southern Comfort (Food)

Our third objective coming down to Atlanta was to visit with John Mark's family, namely his mother and grandmother. It was Mother's Day after all. Secretly though, my father was more focused on getting some good old fashion home cooked southern food.

Up until now, the only "southern" food my family has enjoyed came from our pit stops at Cracker Barrel. So we were very excited to get something more authentic.

But before we'd get to indulge in John Mark's grandmother's home cooking, we had a few meals at some southern restaurants.

Mary Mac's Tea Room
The first taste was Mary Mac's - a local favorite in Atlanta. Unfortunately, when we arrived at 1PM, there was a long line outside waiting to be seated. Apparently we arrived just after a party of 25 (celebrating someone's college graduation). We put our names down and just enjoyed the perfect Atlanta weather.

But by 2PM we were seated and enjoying some delicious comfort food. My father went with the Shrimp & Grits while my mother went with the Grilled Liver with Onions. We also had some Fried Green Tomatoes appetizers. Everything was super delicious and reasonably priced (around $13/dish) though the portions were a bit smaller than we were expecting. Definitely no Cracker Barrel!

The next meal was much later that night after our Stone Mountain Laser show. Unlike Manhattan, apparently almost everything closes in Atlanta around 10PM. So we went where John Mark and Jenn usually went late night for food - Waffle House.

Waffle House
Apparently, this is THE late night spot for southerners. Aside from the obvious waffles, the famous menu item is the Hashbrowns. You can get them done as follows:
  • Smothered:  sauteed onions
  • Covered: melted cheese
  • Chunked: grilled ham
  • Diced: grilled tomatoes
  • Peppered: jalapeƱos
  • Capped: mushrooms
  • Topped: chili
  • Country: gravy
Since my father is truly a glutton, he went with the "All the Way" option which meant all of the above. I'm not gonna lie, it looked like bad dog food. But as my father always tells me "it all looks the same after it goes down anyway."

Meanwhile, I was saving space for John Mark's grandmother's cooking the next day so I just had a small waffle. After all, we were at WAFFLE house. When in Rome...

Grandma's Home Cooking
Unfortunately, we didn't have our camera with us when we met up with John Mark's extended family on Mother's Day for Sunday lunch. However, when we arrived around 1PM, we were greeted by a dozen people who were excited to see a cute half Asian-half white NYC toddler and handed large glasses of sweet tea.

Of course, my father couldn't help but eye the delicious food waiting for us. It was all set out on the kitchen counter and when they let us loose, we filled our plates buffet style. Never meeting a buffet line he didn't like my father piled on the roasted turkey, chicken, cooked green beans, creamed corn, fried okra, gravy and my new favorite thing - cornbread dressing. It was like Thanksgiving Dinner, but without the pilgrims.

Unlike the northerners who have "stuffing" with turkey, the southerners have dressing. Dressing is dish made with cornbread, bread crumbs, butter and herbs. It has a more solid texture than stuffing (which is usually more loose), but has a very similar salty/savory flavor profile. I had never had it before, so we were very excited to try it. After that, I came to realize there are only 2 types of people in the world. People who love cornbread dressing and people who've never had it before.

After our enormous homecooked lunch, we were then confronted with our choice of three different homemade cakes and pies. My father opted for the sweet potato pie while my mother went with the pineapple cake. You really couldn't go wrong either way, but I'm sure my father's belt got a good workout holding his belly in.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day Weekend in Atlanta

Our weekend trip to Atlanta was three-fold.

First, my father wanted to knock off another Major League Baseball stadium off his list - one of his major personal goals in life.

During my first year of life (2012), he took me to my first baseball game in Miami's Marlin Park. Then last year (2013), he took my mother to Colorado's Coors Field, home of the Rockies. So on this trip, he went to see a Braves game at Turner Field - but without me and without my mother!

This time, he decided to take his friend John Mark instead of us. Our friend John Mark and my father went to the Braves-Cubs game on Friday night along with John Mark's sister Jenn who lived nearby.

Despite having a first place team, Atlanta fans weren't that into their hometown Braves, so tickets were somewhat easy to come by and at reasonable prices. For $45/ticket, my father and his friends sat Terrace Infield Section 205 in Row 12. As you can see from the photo here, they were pretty great seats. The same seats at Yankee Stadium in NYC would run at least $100+ each.

The game was pretty great (or so I heard) with the Cubs rallying in the 9th inning against the Brave's All-Star closer, Craig Kimbrel, to tie up the game and send it into extra innings. Then in the bottom of the 10th inning, the Braves' Freddy Freeman singled home the winning run from second to earn a walk off victory! So now, after Atlanta, my father has now been to 28 of the 30 major league stadiums. The only remaining ones being Minnesota and Kansas City, though since Turner Field will be replaced with a new stadium in a few years, we'll probably have to come back to Atlanta in 2017.

The second major reason we went down there was to experience Red Neck culture. For those of you who don't know what a Red Neck is, check out this Urban Dictionary definition.

So we could have driven around looking for wanna-be Honey Boo Boo families in the local trailer parks, but figured they wouldn't appreciate us driving up and taking photos of their double-wides. So instead we decided to go to Stone Mountain, so that we could get to see some Georgia sights as well as scope out the locals.

Stone Mountain Park is a park out in Dekalb County. Stone Mountain is the site of a famous giant carving commemorating the military leaders of the Confederacy (Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis). In case you can't appreciate the scale of the carving, it's 90' x190' in size (roughly the size of 2.5 football fields), making it the largest bas relief sculpture in the world.

In addition to looking at the relief from the ground, you can also take a trip to the top of the rock and get a 1,686 foot perspective over greater Atlanta. It costs around $10/person each way for the 2 minute ride, but it was pretty cool to see everything from the top.


Then during each evening at 9:30PM back on the ground, they have a laser light show set to Americana music using the Confederate Leader sculpture as the background. Unfortunately, that night it was pouring rain, so my father took me back to the car while our friends and my mother stayed out with umbrellas to watch the show. No that's dedication (if not a recipe for pneumonia)!

The next day, we were off to see the third reason we came down to Atlanta...