Friday, November 28, 2014

US Flexperks

My father was starting to run out of good cards to sign up for. Typically, he looks for at least $400 of value when he signs up for a card. This is a pretty low hurdle given how many cards out there offer well over $500 of potential value. But when you've already applied to all the best cards, you start to lower your expectations.

So along with 4 other cards, my father applied for the US Bank FlexPerks card in March 2014 which gave him 20,000 FlexPerk points after spending $3,500 on the card. 20,000 points may not sound like much, but you have to remember that not all points were created equal. FlexPerk points can be worth up to 2 cents/pt, so this sign up bonus had potential to be $400 of value.

We quickly hit the minimum spend requirement and earned our bounty. But the challenge with this rewards program scheme was that he would have to either:

(a) buy a single airline ticket and have a separate reservation for my mother and me; or
(b) use the US Bank credit card to buy my mother and my tickets (which would be an inferior return on a large purchase).

For example, my father earns 3x United redeemable miles and 1x United elite qualifying miles when using his United Select credit card on - versus just 2x Flexpoints on his US bank card.

However, as luck would have it, my father's friend, a partner at Five Star Painting IL, needed to fly from Chicago to Orlando for a National Franchisee conference in January. A single person itinerary!

Now we had to see if using our 20,000 FlexPerk points were worth it relative to just purchasing the flight outright using cash.

I won't get into all the details of the Flexperks program as you can easily Google that yourselves. But the basic idea is that you get "up to $400" of ticket value for 20,000 points, or "up to $600" of ticket value for 30,000, etc...

That means, you have a chance to maximize your points redemption at 2.0 cents/pt IF AND ONLY IF you had a $400.00 ticket you wanted to buy or some multiple of $200.

For example, if your target ticket was $400.01, then you'd need to redeem 30k points (getting only a 1.33 cents/pt). So chances are, we'd have to shoot for something between $350-400 for a realistic redemption (1.7-2.0 cents/pt).

However, you do earn frequent flyer and elite qualification miles for these redemptions since the airline views these transactions as regular cash purchases. So the TRUE redemption value is likely even higher, depending on how you value the miles you earn. But the downside appears to be that these redemptions don't have the same consumer protections that direct purchases would (ie, 24 hour free change/cancellations).

Fortune Favors the Prepared
So when we saw there was a $380 flight itinerary for a round trip Chicago-Orlando flight on United and American for the ideal departure times, my father finally found an opportunity to redeem his 20k Flexpoints at a 1.9 cents/pt value.

Saving $380 cash was a nice benefit, though there was also a $298 fare that his business partner could have used. However, that return flight departed Orlando at 8:30PM and arrived in Chicago at 10:30PM. My father agreed that getting home 5 hours earlier to actually spend time with his family that weekend was worth the $82 premium (that would likely have been spent on a travel dinner/drinks anyway).

Sometimes you get lured into accumulating a different rewards currency that seemingly has worthwhile value. But unless you actually redeem those reward points, they're pretty much worthless.

As you LCD readers know, we've primarily been a United / Starwood / Chase / Citi family who sometimes cheats with American / Hyatt / IHG / Hilton opportunistically. But when we go to our personal 3rd tier travel loyalty points programs (Delta / Club Carlson) and bank programs (US Flexperks), you can often get stuck with a handful of "potentially valuable" points that actually are harder to use.

We lucked out in this case since we found a worthwhile redemption, but this situation reminded us that not all point currencies are worth chasing after.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

RIP Blue

Well, after a nice 10 month run, one of my father's favorite go-to credit cards was cancelled on him.

We've talked about the "old" American Express Blue card that would reward you with 5% back on all your drugstore, grocery and gas station spending. My mother actually applied for the card back in January this year, and we soon hit the required $6,500 spend to trigger the 5% bonus categories.

January -September
So for the past several months, we accumulated a nice chunk of Amex Reward Dollars (that could be used as statement credits). How much? Well, since I've never been a shy child, let's take a look at the exact numbers.

So from this graphic, we can see that my parents spent about $75,432 on Pharmacies with another $1,957 on Groceries. I'm not tracking their exact spending, but I'd say it was safe to say that the Groceries were actual 10 months of groceries, but the Pharmacy spend was inflated by a lot of Vanilla Reload, Paypal My Cash and other gift card products. Sure we do spend a few hundred dollars each month at CVS and Duane Reade (our local CVS sells beer cheaper than the grocery stores), but clearly, we don't drink enough to generate $75k of spend.

According to Amex, we earned about $2,475 of Amex Reward Dollars that we used to reduce our monthly credit card bill. That money that we "saved" then went into our "Travel Savings" account which would build up for upcoming travel spend. If you consider the fact these rebates are tax-free, then $2,475 after-tax could be equivalent of getting a surprise $4,000 bonus check from your job.

Because of this lucrative period when we were earning 4-5% cash back like this, it made a lot more sense to shift our other non-bonused spending from (a) a Points/Miles strategy to (b) a Cash strategy using this Amex Blue and a Paypal Debit card (see here for post on that).

Thanksgiving Surprise
Unfortunately, however, this morning, this came to a sudden halt. My father logged into the American Express account to see if his October rewards had posted, and he saw that the card account had been cancelled. This wasn't a complete surprise given that Flyertalk message boards have been very active when the first wave of closures happened a month ago, but we thought we had safely hidden below the Amex radar given we never went above our generous $20k credit limit in any given month.

The real disappointment was that Amex has a month lag from distributing the Reward Dollars for use. Meaning, Our October spend on the card was going to show up in this November 26th statement (today). And all the money we spent this month would show up next month when December ended.

Since the account was closed today, that means all the money we spent on the card in October and November didn't generate us any Reward Dollars. So we're kind of "out" approximately $1,000 of rewards given we already spent over $20,000 during the 2 months since October 1st.

It also is disappointing that we had 3 cards under this account registered for Small Business Saturday in a few days. That was $90 of additional free spend we'll miss out on.

But whenever my father gets upset, I always try to cheer him up with some ice cream.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Planning Christmas Dinners

Given we couldn't really go away this Christmas season, my aunt and grandparents decided they would spend the holidays in Atlantic City at the Borgata Resort and Casino.

Now, that's typically not a scene for a family with a young 3 year old toddler, but my family definitely leans into the unconventional.

Dec 24-25 - Atlantic City
Dec 26-27 - Philadelphia

But since we'll be away from home on the 24th and 25th, my father started planning ahead already about where we'll be eating those nights.

Instead of a home-cooked Christmas dinner, we'll be dining out at some overpriced hotel buffet or Atlantic City restaurant. But at the very least, we'll have reservations and a good idea of  which off-site places might be open for lunch during Christmas.

After emailing them, it looks like the famous White House Subs will be open until 4PM on Christmas Eve, but closed on Christmas Day at both locations. So we'll likely either get it on Wednesday for a late lunch as we head into Atlantic City or wait until Friday for lunch as we head to Philadelphia.

Then for our Christmas eve dinner, we'll be having an early 6PM dinner at the Asian themed mega-restaurant Buddakan Atlantic City. I think that makes poetic sense for me. After all, I'm half Asian / half Jewish.

The actual day of Christmas is a bit up in the air. Most likely we'll have to stay in the Borgata as I suspect most places will be closed for the holiday. Fortunately, they have a few different options - though I suspect they will all be overpriced and nothing to write home blog about.

But that evening, we have another 6PM seating at the Chart House, an upscale chain seafood restaurant. While you likely won't find this on any Foodie Blog or in NY Magazine, the Chart House franchise has special meaning to my parents.

Several years ago, when my mother was visiting New York (and America) for the very first time, my father took her for a dinner at the Chart House in Weehawken, NJ that overlooked the Manhattan skyline.

He told her how as a young child growing up in New Jersey, he would always anxiously look upon the great New York City from this very point across the Hudson River and dream about living there. And since that dream had come true, he wanted to go after his new dream - of marrying the woman who would become my mother.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Starwood Obsessed?

Apparently, my father is the exact kind of customer that hotel chains like Starwood want. Actively traveling and somewhat compulsively drawn to a single brand where they concentrate their travel spend.

He drank the Kool-Aid and bought into the hotel loyalty program that many consider the best in the industry, Starwood Preferred Guest.

For calendar 2013, my father hit Platinum status for the first time by spending over 50 nights in Starwood hotels. For the rest of 2013 and 2014, he enjoyed Platinum benefits, including (a) complimentary suite upgrades, (b) free breakfasts and (c) generally higher levels of service.

Now that he's been tasting the good life, he's having a hard time contemplating a future off the Loyalty Hamster Wheel. We haven't yet done a pure Mattress Run (where you stay at a hotel for no other reason than to earn credit for elite status), but we're about to as my father just booked a night at the Le Meridien Philadelphia for the Friday after Christmas.

But this upcoming mattress run isn't really for earning Platinum status (since we already locked that up in September). This Dec 26th mattress run is for completing a self-imposed challenge of staying at each of Starwood's 9 hotel brands in a single calendar year. So far this year, we've hit up 8 of them and are missing just the Le Meriden brand.

1. Aloft - Chicago, IL
2. Element - Ewing, NJ
3. Four Points - San Antonio, TX
4. Luxury Collection - Athens, Greece
5. Sheraton - Salt Lake City, UT
6. St Regis - Rome, Italy
7. W - New Orleans, LA
8. Westin - Austin, TX

So to complete his little mini-goal, we booked a one night stay in nearby Philadelphia and hit Brand #9 before December 31st.

I suppose that we could have also booked a night at the Parker Meridien in New York City and taken a subway instead of driving 2.5 hours, but we opted to use the long weekend to take a trip to a different city (and get some amazing cheesesteaks) instead of doing another Manhattan staycation. Besides, the Parker Meriden in NYC was going for $423/night or 20,000 SPG points (versus the $170/night at the LM Philadelphia). Still a bit pricey for a hotel we didn't really need, but hey, it's Christmas!

So what does my father get for hitting all 9 brands in a year? Most likely nothing at all.

Starwood did surprise people who accomplished this feat in 2012 with an award for 3 free nights. However, people reported that no such surprise gift was awarded in 2013, so this year is uncertain at best.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nov 29 - Small Business Saturday Next Week

On Sunday, my father work up early and logged into the American Express website and registered all 28 of our individual American Express cards.

Now, to be clear, we don't have 28 separate accounts (we only have 9 primary accounts), but we do have 1-2 authorized users for each primary account and a few Amex Serve cards.

Immediately, we received confirmation emails that each of our cards were registered. And when we logged online to our Amex account, we also saw that the Small Business Saturday offer had been added to all the others we registered for.

So now we have a few weeks to figure out how to generate 84 separate transactions of $10 each in a single 24 hour period on Saturday November 29. That will generate up to $840 of free spend for us. But of course, my family's not that greedy. So we're going to find small ways to help our local community (businesses and residents). Here's our rough plan for now...

- $20 nail salon appointment
- $20 dry cleaning from Ivy Cleaners
- $60 late lunch from Ootoya
- $40 groceries from Garden of Eden
- $200 of gift cards from Morton Williams Supermarket (to give away to the needy)
- $40 of Korean groceries from Hana Mart
- $200 of gift cards from Hill Country BBQ (to use for later when we take visitors out)
- $40 happy hour (drinks and oysters) at BLT Fish
- $70 dinner at Izakaya Nomad (seen here)
- $50 worth of wine at Landmark Wine

It looks like even with all that, we'll still have about $100 hundred left that we won't be able to spend. I suppose we can always get even more gift cards at Hill Country or Morton Williams, or more bottles of wine. We'll see how it goes.

The one thing we need to do know is to make sure each of our Amex Serve prepaid cards has at least a $30 balance on each of them. We had already loaded and emptied out most of our Serve accounts already, but thankfully we had one account that was yet to be emptied. So we used that one to send $30 to each of the 4 other Serve accounts.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Amex Small Business Saturday Registration Opens Tonight

Just a quick reminder that TOMORROW you can register for Small Business Saturday (November 29, 2014). Exactly at 12AM Mountain Standard Time (aka 2AM Eastern tonight).

In 2012, Amex offered a $25 statement credit on each registered Amex card whenever it was used to make a purchase of at least $25 at a qualifying small business. In 2013, they reduced it to $10 statement credits per Amex card.

But regardless of the specific dollar amount, the best part of this promotion is that each one of your American Express cards could be registered (including multiple authorized user cards under a single master account).

For 2014, they're sticking with the $10 level, but allowing you to do it 3x per Amex card! Click here for details. So you can get $30 of free purchases for each of your Amex cards - as long as you break it up into 3 separate transactions.

Imagine you had just 3 different Amex cards. That's up to $90 of free purchases as long as you spend it across 9 different transactions of $10 each. Not bad at all! Free Tip: Many local restaurants will qualify for Small Business Saturday and sell $10 gift certificates that can be used (and combined) for later.

Just remember, that to make your Amex cards eligible for Small Business Saturday, you need to sign up online and register each on Sunday, November 16th. It's a limited offer so don't wait too long.

In fact, my father's going to wait until 2AM tonight to be one of the first to register (click here) his LONG list of eligible Amex cards...

Monday, November 3, 2014

Toddlers and Time Zones - Asia

Last week, we talked about how to deal with jet lag on flights to Europe. Today we'll talk about traveling the other way to Asia.

Unlike fights to Europe, these trans-Pacific flights are more varied with options that will get you there at various times throughout the day.

However, we always seem to be on flights that arrive late in the evening (9PM or later Asia time). That late of an arrival almost forces you to get an airport hotel nearby for a night before you can either (a) connect to your flight the next morning or (b) explore the city if that is indeed your final destination.

However, as you can see below looking at flights to Hong Kong and Tokyo, you have multiple more flight time options, including flights that arrive in the morning or mid-day.

The best time for you again depends on if you need to connect to another flight. But assuming you've reached your final destination, here are the factors my family would look at:

A. 9AM Departure - 1PM Arrival. If you arrive mid-day, then you can still drop your stuff off at your hotel and have an afternoon to explore the city, get a proper dinner and ease into your Asian vacation.

However, that really depends on your ability to shift your mental clock and get a "night's worth" of sleep on the 14-16 hour flight during what would normally be your daytime. I don't know about you, but I can only nap for a max of 2 hours when the sun is out. Sitting in my seat for such a long time in a confined area means I really need a lot of Disney Junior on the iPad and a lot of coloring books.

But when traveling with young kids, most parents quickly realize this is almost too much to ask of their children. This is why my family almost always opts for overnight flights when flying long distances.

B. 4PM Departure - 9PM Arrival. This evening flight would have a scheduled sleeping time more approximate to your New York time. Assuming you take off, eat dinner and watch a movie, you could try to asleep at 8PM NY time (9AM Hong Kong time) and get a full 8 hours and wake up at 5PM Asia time, enough time to watch another movie and have your second meal before you land in Hong Kong. Unlike the European redeye flights, this 16 hour flight is definitely long enough to get a full night of sleep.

However, when you land, you'd be ready to start your day when a toddler should be going to bed (9PM Hong Kong time). Now if you were a single guy/girl looking for Hong Kong nightlife, this situation could be ideal.

But if you're a 3 year old toddler, probably less so. Depending on your choice of hotel, it might make sense not to break the bank on the first night since you're just going to sleep. When possible, my parents will sometimes secure a nearby hotel (focusing on price and distance) for the first night. After all, any destination hotel they actually want to spend time in will probably be much more expensive, and it'd be a shame to pay those prices for a just a few hours of sleep without any time to enjoy the property.

We didn't do this for our 2014 Hong Kong trip, but we did in 2013 when we needed a night in Bangkok after our flight landed at 10:30PM. Instead of traveling into the Bangkok city center, we opted for the Best Western located just 5 minutes from Suvarnabhumi Airport - which was actually extremely impressive!

Again, the first night is just the beginning of your Asia trip. The real trick is to manage the jet lag as quickly as possible so that you can re-adjust to the local time zone. Again, my parents are probably more strict than others, but we do whatever it takes to acclimate.

So assuming we took the late afternoon flight, my parents would actually wake me up early (~5AM New York time or 6PM Hong Kong time) so that I'd have more awake time on the plane. Then by the time we landed and arrived to our hotel, I'd have a chance at being tired.

Then instead of going to bed as soon as we checked into our hotel room (~11PM Hong Kong time), I'd get a bath to wake me up a bit and stay up a few hours more. We'd go to bed closer to 2-3AM (which is only 1-2PM New York time).

Most of the time, with it being dark out, that would be enough to do the trick for me to sleep through the night, but I am noticing it getting tougher and tougher as I went from 10 months old to almost 3 years old. There were definitely times when I woke up at like 6AM, but that's not so bad since we could start our days (and breakfasts) earlier.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Girl Only Turns 3 Once

If you know my father in real life, you probably know that he doesn't really like animals. It's not that he hates them or has negative feelings towards them. He's just not a pet-lover. They rank about as high for him as a nice potted plant or a cool framed poster. Plus, the fact they need attention and care when we're busy or away traveling doesn't help the case for a pet in our Manhattan apartment.

But fortunately (for me) he loves me more than he dislikes having to change a dirty litter box, so for my 3rd birthday, I got a nice little surprise from my parents.

His name is Smoke. He's an 8 week old Scottish Fold and the newest member of the Songer family.