Friday, January 30, 2015

3x Bonus Citi Thank You Preferred

Usually, my parents would call up and ask for a retention bonus for cards that have an annual fee coming up. For example, we called up Chase a few weeks ago and received a $100 statement credit to offset the $95 annual fee due in a few weeks.

But apparently, we should have also been calling up our no-fee cards as well. The banks also want to incentivize you to spend on all their cards.

So after reading about Miles to Memories' retention offers on the Citi Thank You Preferred (the no-fee version of the Citi Thank You family), we called about my mother's card. After stating that we were thinking of closing the card, we were eventually offered a great promotion.

1. Spend $1,000 each month for 3 months and receive an additional 10,000 Thank You Points.

However, we knew to hold out for an even better offer.

2. Get an additional 2x Thank You Points for every eligible dollar spent in the next 6 months.


Since my father is a math nerd an Asian, he quickly did the math of how much spend he would have to make to be break-even between the two offers. Under the first offer, he would get 13,000 points for $3,000 of spend, which is about 4.33x for that initial $3,000 of spend. But then 1x on any additional spend.

But under the second offer, we could earn more points if we spent more than $5,000 over 6 months. At that spend level, we'd clear at least 15,000 points. And if some of that spend was on dining/entertainment, we'd get even more. Those two categories normally get 2x, so they'd earn 4x under this promotional offer.

And yeah, trust me. My father will find ways to spend more than $5,000 in 6 months.

Ugh, too much math for one day...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Flight #100

Flight #100 - United 1180
Newark (EWR) – Orlando (MCO)
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Depart: 11:42AM / Arrive: 2:37PM
Duration: 2hr 55min
Aircraft: Boeing 757
Miles Earned: 938 miles
Lifetime Miles: 190,211 miles

My very first flight was about 3 years ago when I was just over 3 months old. My mother was pretty nervous, but my father figured I might as well start getting used to flying if I was going to be a member of this family.

Fast forward 35 months, and I've completed my 100th flight segment. Now, to be clear, I don't mean that I have been to 100 destinations or have taken 100 round trips. Some trips were the usual 2 flights round-trip, others 3-4 flights for a single trip.

So when I finished my Newark-Orlando flight on United last week, I have been on a plane 100 times, flying approximately 190,211 miles in the air. To put that into perspective, a flight from New York to LA is just under 2,500 miles each way. So I've flown the equivalent of 76 of those flights.

I suppose some people might think I'm bragging. Maybe I am. But the intent of this LCD blog is to journal all my experiences for when I'm old(er) and can't remember my travels as a youth and to disprove the conventional belief that traveling with kids is impossible. Remember, kids are blessings, not an excuse!

And since it's #TBT, here's a photo from Flight #1 from February 2012.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Retention Year 2

Last year, my father called up his favorite banks and asked if there were any offers to compel him to keep their credit cards open for another year. After all, spending $65-95 every year for each premium credit card can start to add up... especially when we have 30+ cards. 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.

Some cards that we will keep open forever include the Starwood American Express cards (as it helps us re-qualify for Starwood Platinum status each year, offers 2x on Starwood spend and has great Amex promotions) and United Select Visa (as it helps my father re-qualify for United Gold status each year and offers 3x on United spend).

But coincidentally, these were the ones we threatened to cancel last year in the hopes to receive an attractive retention offer. Recall that last year, my father received 2,000 SPG points in exchange for paying the $65 annual fee 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.

This time around, my father called Amex and asked to be transferred to an Amex Retention Specialist. My father said he was doing some planning for which credit cards to use and which to cancel for 2015, then asked if there were any upcoming Amex promotions he should know about. Unfortunately, he was told that since he received a promotional offer last year, he was ineligible for another one this year. No harm, no foul.

He did, however, fare better with Chase when he called to inquire about his United Select Visa. This front line customer service representative was authorized to offer my father a $100 statement credit if he kept his card open another year. That would more than offset the $95 annual fee, so he was actually being paid $5 to keep the card. This offer was on top of the regular 5,000 United miles that he receives each year anyway.

Then another day, we called for my mother's Chase British Airways Visa. We signed up a year ago when they were offering 100,000 BA Avios for spending $20k in the first 12 months. We used those BA miles to fly us to Chicago last year and to fly our friends to Orlando last week. When we discussed waiving the annual fee, they told us it wasn't an option. So we told them we'd like to close the account. Then came an offer to give us 9,000 Avios for spending $1,500 in the next three months. That comes out to 6x vs. the usual 1.25x per dollar spent.

So my father accepted that offer and kept the card open. We quickly found a way to spend $1,500 in a few transactions that week and now are awaiting the bonus to post in the Feb 1st statement. Even though we receive the bonus, we'll still close the card afterwards, since the bonus was only contingent upon spending $1,500 on the card and not paying the $95 annual fee.

We still have to call Citi (for my mother's American Airlines Amex) and Barlcays (for my father's US Airways Mastercard), but we'd be OK with closing those down if no compelling offers are made.

[UPDATE: For my mothers American Airlines Amex, we were given a $95 statement credit if we made a $95 purchase, which was actually $10 more than the $85 annual fee. For my father's US Airways Mastercard, they refunded him $89 for the annual fee, though he was only charged $44.50 for the annual fee.]

Monday, January 19, 2015

New Uber Fan - Just not in NYC

DISCLAIMER - clicking on one of the links on this page may give you $20 in free Uber credit from my Five Star Painting. You've been a 3 year old.

We've been hearing about Uber for years now. After it launched in San Francisco, New York was the next logical target market. Of course, for us, we didn't really pay attention since we're not "black car" types and prefer MTA options.

Then the company launched UberX where it took "regular" drivers and turned them into make-shift taxi operators at a price point that was supposedly competitive with the NYC standard, the Yellow Taxi.

However, the few times we tried using UberX, the price always came out higher than a typical cab, because it was always set at Surge Pricing (where prices are temporarily increased 1.2x to 5.0x regular pricing to match higher levels of demand).

So we pretty much kept our Uber apps unused for months, if not years - even when American Express had special promotions of $10 off Uber rides last year. However, my father found some niches where Uber was a better value proposition.

A. Rides to/from Newark Airport
Given we're still loyal to United (more so because they have a hub in Newark where we can catch direct flights), we find ourselves driving to/from Newark Airport quite often. The most cost effective way would be to take public transportation - a $15/person shuttle bus from Bryant Park. Including the taxi/subway ride from our apartment, that would run around $50 total for our family of three.

However, since I joined the family, the logistics got more challenging and the premium to have a private car/taxi became most justifiable. So for $70-75 all-in ($52 ride + tolls/tip), we had been using Dial-7 limo service which lets us schedule in advance and gets us door-to-door to the airport.

But there's an expression we use a lot in my family - "You get what you pay for." So when you choose the cheapest option ($52), we don't expect to get the shiny 2014 Lincoln Towncar. We'd often get the 2003 Toyota Camry or even a Dodge Minivan. Basically, they offer the fare to any driver who's willing to take the lower fare.

UberX, however, offers a very compelling value proposition for this route.

First, they have a "flat fare" of about $65 (though it does vary very slightly to account for tolls). For example, our most recent fares were $67.45 and $68.15.

Second, they have much higher standards for all their drivers. Every car is kept very clean and relatively new.

Third, the payment system is seamless. No paper slips to fill out. No Square readers to swipe. No awkward moments where the driver stands over you while you fill out the tip. You just step out and say, "thank you."

So for a lower price, you get a better experience.

B. Non-Manhattan Cities
Uber is currently in multiple cities across the world, but they face a lot of political headwinds in just about all of them. Because they're so disruptive (basically adding tons of unregulated driver capacity into a tightly regulated ecosystem), there's a lot of push back from incumbent services.

Take Orlando for example. My father was suggested Mears Transportation to get from the airport to our hotel (Disney Swan). That's a 22 mile drive each way. To take 6 passengers, we would have needed a van and Mears quoted us $103 total. UberXL quoted us $41-53 total!

The customer will always gravitate towards the option that makes the most compelling value proposition. And when UberXL is able to offer ~50% lower pricing than Mears Transportation in Orlando, it's hard for many passengers to pass up that kind of savings for the benefit of the driver having a regulatory license. Unfair? Definitely. Dangerous? Perhaps. But well received? Absolutely! After all, the masses will vote with their wallets.

Another Orlando example. Each day this weekend, my father and Paul had to go to the Convention at the Rosen Centre. It was about a 10.5 mile trip each way, mostly on Highway 4. How much do you think it cost with UberX?

Before you answer, here are some NYC UberX data points.

(A) the above UberX trip from our apartment in Manhattan to Newark Airport was 17.5 miles and cost $68 including tolls.
(B) a Manhattan UberX ride going 22 blocks north and 2.5 blocks west in Midtown was 1.6 miles and cost $13.62 (before surge pricing was applied).

The 10.5 mile trip in Orlando (from Disney Swan to Rosen Centre) cost just $11.90.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Walt Disney World Swan Resort

Hotel Details
Hotel: Walt Disney World Swan
Dates: January 15-18, 2015
Rate Paid: $75 + 5,000 SPG per night
Regular Cost: $236 per night 
Redemption: 3.2 cents/point

The Five Star Painting convention was actually being held at the Rosen Centre, but since my mother and I were coming (along with Jack & Connor and their mother), my father decided to switch to a hotel closer to the Disney Theme parks.

After all, it was a lot easier for the fathers to jump an taxi to their conference than it would have been 2 mothers and 3 kids to get over to Disney. Plus, having 2 more stays and 6 more nights at a Starwood hotel definitely helped with my father's quest to re-qualify for Starwood Platinum status for 2016.

As you readers may know know, the Walt Disney World Swan hotel is really a Westin hotel located on the Disney campus and offers many (but not all) the benefits of being a Walt Disney World hotel. For example, we were eligible for the Extra Hours at the theme parks and the free shuttle buses to the theme parks. However, since it was not actually owned by Disney, we did not get the Free Disney Airport Shuttle or access to the Disney Meal Plans. But those weren't big deals to us.

So for $75 cash + 5,000 SPG points per night, we were booked for 3 nights at the Starwood Category 4 hotel. Plus, since my father was a Platinum member, we'd get the $23/night resort fee waived and free continental breakfast each morning. That sure beat the discounted $115/night rate at the Rosen Centre (without free breakfast or complimentary wifi).

We arrived Thursday 3PM in the afternoon (before the big MLK Weekend rush). The bellman grabbed our bags from the taxi and we went up to the empty front desk where a very friendly staff named Matt checked us in.

My father had booked 2 rooms so Matt found both in the system. However, since we were coming during a busy weekend, there were no suites or family alcove rooms available for a complimentary Platinum upgrade. Not a huge deal since we weren't planning on staying in the rooms much anyway. Matt was kind enough, however, go give each room Complimentary Breakfast vouchers for each morning, though the official policy is actually only for the 1 room with the Platinum guest staying in it.

Matt did give us our choice of rooms. Our best options to be close were on the 6th floor. Both were refurbished rooms and had balconies, but one faced Epcot Center where they had a fireworks show every night. The other faced the resort. Aside from the views, the rooms were identical.

While these were the "more modern" refurbished rooms, they still had a lot of standard wear and tear, though we didn't let that bother us. We read enough reviews in advance that we weren't expecting a perfectly new room. The beds were the great Westin Heavenly mattresses and the bathroom had a sink inside as well as a separate sink outside - huge for families.

The Property
After putting getting our luggage brought up, we quickly got settled and met downstairs to explore the property. Since the Swan was a sister hotel to the larger Dolphin across the water, we were able to access all the features of both properties, including the Social Hour (Happy Hour) at the Dolphin's lobby bar on Thursday evenings.

There was a lot of water around. The Swan and Dolphin were separated by a large man made lake with a walkway connecting the two properties.

On the eastern end of the property, there was another lake where the Disney Boardwalk area was.

But one of my favorite features of the Swan was the character breakfasts on the weekends at their Garden Grove Restaurant. Starting at 8AM, they have some Disney characters come out while you're eating breakfast to make your morning just a bit more special.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Finally Frozen

After my mother and I missed the chance to see Elsa and Anna at Magic Kingdom the day before, my father was 100% determined to make sure his only daughter saw the one thing she wanted. So he blew off his work conference on Saturday morning and took us all to Disney Hollywood Studios where they had a live Frozen show.

Since we were staying inside Disney at the Swan Resort, we were able to hop on a free ferry boat that would take us to the entrance of DHS.

While it was a nice leisurely ride, we were in a rush to book our FastPass appointments for the Frozen show. Knowing time was of the essence, he told me to stay with my mother while he ran ahead to find a FastPass kiosk. Unfortunately, by the time he found a kiosk to reserve time slots, all the Frozen slots were taken.

Undaunted, my father, then ran over to the theater where they were having the "The Frozen Sing A Long Celebration" show and inquired about how likely it would be for us to get into the next show from the standby line. Since it was still pretty early, it looked very promising and he got in line while calling my mother to race over to join him.

As the doors opened, the crowds started to enter the theater. Suddenly, the line my father was in began to advance quickly towards the front doors. But my mother and I were no where in sight! Then at the last second, my father saw my mother and pulled me into line while my mother ran to park our stroller somewhere. We just made it!

The show had live characters from the movie and would show clips on the big screen while everyone in the audience would sing a long. It was pretty funny and I got to sing "Let It Go" with hundreds of other fans. I'm not sure, but I thought I saw my father tear up when he saw me so excited to sing.

Later on that day, we tried to go to some of the other rides/shows, but nap time and eating got in the way of the rigid FastPass schedule that had us at Disney Junior 2PM while I was fast asleep in my stroller. Plus the next reservation was for Star Tours where I wouldn't meet the 40" height requirement. Thanks dad for your short genes!

So when I woke up from my nap, my parents came up with the idea to get my face painted. While the price ($18) is hardly justifiable, my father wasn't about to let a few dollars stand in the way of his daughter's sheer happiness on her first trip to Disney.

Too Young for Disney

So while my father and Paul were at their business meetings for Five Star Painting, the mothers and kids had free time to visit "The Happiest Place on Earth."

My parents originally wanted to wait until I was ~5 years old before taking me on my first trip to see Mickey Mouse, but given how this trip to Orlando fell conveniently during a frigid winter in NYC, my father decided to accelerate the timetable.

Plus, going with my best friends, Jack and Connor (who have been to Disney World before), I knew they'd show me the ropes.

We arrived to our hotel, the Walt Disney World Swan Resort, Thursday evening around 3PM, but we didn't try to make it to any theme parks that first night. Instead, we just had a nice big family dinner all together at Il Mulino in the Swan resort. My father was so happy to finally be able to enjoy a nice restaurant that was also kid friendly!

The next day, while the fathers were at their work conference, we had a nice breakfast and went to Magic Kingdom around noon. Boy, was it super crowded. Apparently, January is very slow for Disney, except for MLK Weekend when it gets very crowded. Nevertheless, my mom and I did our best to enjoy our first time.

We did the FastPass thing, but that day, they claimed we could only do 1 reservation at a time. That really made it difficult for us to skip some lines, but I did get to fly on Dumbo and ride the carousel.

Of course, my one singular wish this weekend was to see the Frozen characters, Elsa and Anna. But unfortunately, it was going to be a 200 minute wait in a line, and kids weren't really built for that kind of hold time. So I didn't end up seeing or getting my photo with them.

We ended up walking around a lot, trying to decide which rides were worth waiting 90+ minutes for. Unfortunately, I was under 40" tall, so it excluded me from riding on certain rides. And while FastPass is a much better system than what my father experienced when he was a child, it was still imperfect since all the good rides are booked first thing in the morning when the park opens. Nap time also gets all screwed up as well. And if you know anything about my family, we love sleeping whenever we can.

I know a lot of kids absolutely love Disney World in Orlando, and it's great for families who can finally let their kids just be kids. But I think it's going to be something I'll need a few years to truly appreciate. Being 3 years old, I thought Disney was just OK. To be honest, I was just as happy to spend time with my friends, Jack and Connor running around the hotel.

But of course, I think we're going to give Disney theme parks another try when I'm a bit older - though my parents already decided it definitely won't be in Orlando. They can't stand the massive crowds of tourists where groups of adults take up space that should be for kids. Interestingly enough, the non-Orlando Disney locations are significantly less popular.

My mother does love Paris...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Best Friend Reunion

So it looks like my family is starting an annual tradition with our best family friends in Chicago. Last winter, we all met at the Wisconsin Dells to enjoy some indoor water park action in the middle of frigid February. This year, we're all getting together in sunny Orlando, Florida!

As I may have mentioned in an earlier post last year, my father's friend Paul started a new residential painting business called Five Star Painting IL.

As a part of being in the painting industry, they attend a big group conference each January. This year, the conference is in Orlando, and they're flying down next week, January 15th.

Because my father simply cannot stand being away from me, my parents and I decided we'd all fly down together. While my father and Paul were in their meetings, my mother and I would be enjoying the hotel pool. Paul, however, was going to come solo, leaving behind my two best friends, Jack and Connor, and their mom, Beth.

But through the magic of frequent flyer miles, my father was able to find some award availability for Paul's family to join all of us down in Florida.

First, my father searched online to see what it would cost to pay in cash - just to have a benchmark.

We should note that Paul had bought this exact itinerary back in November for $380/person. Looking a week out, the cash prices for the same flights were a ridiculous $683/person....

...but with they were only going to pay $36/person in cash. Yes, thirty-six dollars! Here's how we did it.

Flight 1 - Chicago to Orlando (on United Airlines)
Beth wanted to fly on the same flight as Paul since she'd otherwise be flying solo with 2 young kids. Since Paul was on a United flight, we looked at using United miles. While there was no Saver level availability (12,500 miles each way), we did find Standard Awards (25,000 miles each way).

So for 50,000 miles + $11.20 taxes + $50 close-in booking fee, we secured 2 seats for Beth and Jack. Connor, being under 2 years of age, could fly free as a lap child. For one way tickets that were going for $427/person ($854 for two), those 50,000 United miles saved $793 total. Not an amazing redemption, but 1.6 cents/mile isn't too bad. Throw in the fact that we were able to assign them Economy+ seating for no additional cost, that was another $100 in additional value received.

Flight 2 - Orlando to Chicago (on American Airlines)
Booking the return flight, we had even better luck. Not only was there award availability, there was Saver level (12,500 American miles each way). However, as you may recall, whenever American has Saver level awards, then you can also book those same exact flights using British Airways Avios (as we did for Chicago 2014 and Puerto Rico 2013).

But remember, the BA Avios program is distance based, not region based. Meaning, American charges the same 12,500 each way for any flight in the domestic US. However, BA Avios charges miles based on the distance, so a 1,005 mile flight costs just 7,500 BA Avios plus $5.60 in taxes per person!

Combining the fact that American Express was having a 40% Bonus for transferring their Membership Rewards into BA Avios, that meant we ended up using just 5,357 Amex MR points per person!

For a one way flight that would cost $256/person, that's a ridiculous 4.8 cents/MR point redemption. Even without the Amex 40% transfer bonus, that would be 3.4 cents/BA Avios. Had we used American Airline miles, then it would have still been a respectable 2.0 cents/AA mile. But of course, that MR transfer was our best option!


Some multiple choice questions to think about...

Flight 1
a. $854 cash for two passengers; or
b. 50,000 United miles + $61.20 cash

Flight 2
a. $512 cash for two passengers; or
b. 10,714 Amex MR points + $11.20 cash

Weather next week
a. New York: 36 degrees
b. Chicago: 21 degrees
c. Orlando: 77 degrees