Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sussex County Sunflower Maze

A few weeks ago, my father saw someone post on Facebook with the headline, "Best NJ Places to Take Preschoolers in August." First on the list was the Sunflower Maze located at Liberty Farms in Sussex County, NJ.

Of course, my parents had to take me. But the Sunflower Maze is only open for about 4 weeks each year, and the start date depends on how the flowers are growing, so you have to check their website for their opening date during the summer. This year, they opened August 22nd.

So this past weekend, we took my grandmother and aunt to make it a full Songer family daytrip. Fortunately, Sussex County is only a little over an hour away from my grandmother's house in suburban NJ. So we spent the night there on Saturday evening and left early Sunday morning.

My family members are big fans of arriving earlier in the day because we (a) avoid the hot afternoon heat and (b) don't get all the crowds of lazy people that take their sweet time getting ready.

While not cheap for a family of five, the $10/adult fees were reasonable given the hours of fun we had and great photos we were able to take. Since I was still 3 years old, I was free, but children ages 4-12 are $6 each.  And yes, they accepted credit cards.

We arrived shortly after 11AM and found parking easily in the main lot (it was overflowing full by the time we left around 12:30PM). Under the tent with the cashier, they also sold snacks, drinks and even umbrellas to protect you from the hot August sun. Of course, my Korean grandmother brought several frozen bottles of water with us from home.

Pretty soon after we entered the field, I found several fun photo boards where I put my head through a hole and my parents whip out their smart phone cameras.

As my nerd father explained to me, the sunflower grows to face the sun each morning. So for Asians photographers, they make a great backdrop since all of them will face the same way.

As we walked deeper into the field, we started seeing more and more sunflowers. I love a farm with good sunflower density.

SPG Platinum 2016

After our stay the other night at the Sheraton Bucks County, we hit 25 stays for the year and re-qualified for SPG Platinum status through February 28, 2017.

This was our second time staying at the property, again for the convenience of going to Sesame Place right across the street.

The best perks of having Platinum status are (a) complimentary upgrades to suites and (b) complimentary continental breakfasts each morning.

Those benefits alone keep my family on the hotel elite status hamster wheel. What do I mean by that?

Well, first you have to earn status, which means staying at that hotel chain for 25 stays (or 50 nights) a year. That's almost 2 months of hotel nights!

Then to enjoy the elite status perks once you've achieved status, you'll need to stay at the same chain the following year. After getting used to the benefits, you'll then feel compelled to continue re-qualifying for the next year, otherwise, you'll just be a "regular guest" with no upgrades, comped breakfasts or late checkouts.

So you end up staying at this chain's hotels, just to stay more at the chain's hotels. Very circular and very clever.

But whenever you tempt my father with free food, you'll almost always get him hooked.

Congrats, Dad!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Crystal Springs Family Aquatic Center

The thing I love about my father's home state of New Jersey are all the family-friendly places you can access within driving distance from Manhattan.

This weekend, we decided to drive down to Sesame Place to take advantage of our free second tickets to the toddler amusement park in Langhorne, PA.

However, we wanted to leave early Friday morning and get to the park right around when they opened at 10AM to beat the crowds.

Given it takes about an hour and a half to drive down, we should have left around 8AM. However, by the time we got ready and had access to our car, it was closer to 12PM before we left. Assuming we'd get to the park around 2PM, it would be pretty full and crowded, so we altered our plans.

Instead of driving all the way to PA to Sesame Place an afternoon session, we decided to go to early Saturday morning at 10AM instead. So for Friday. we decided stop along the way in East Brunswick, NJ (about an hour drive) to hang out at the local town's swimming pool, Crystal Springs Family Aquatic Center.

Despite their lackluster website, the place is pretty amazing for a town pool. While my father's hometown pool only had two big pools (one for everyone and one for lap swimming), Crystal Springs had a few water a lazy river. Yes, folks, a town pool with a lazy river!

Fortunately, even non-residents can come and enjoy the public town pool. However, they're not running a charity, so you have to pay an entrance fee if you're visiting.

So for our family of 3, we had to pay $19/adult and $18/toddler. Now, $54 isn't cheap by any means, but it was a great way for a family to spend a hot August afternoon.

We had visited before in 2013 with some family friends, but this time, I was almost 4 years old and could better enjoy what Crystal Springs had to offer. As you can imagine, I was pretty excited to get into my swimsuit.

On one side, you had the regular pool for teens and adults. The lounge chairs were pretty much all taken by the time we arrived at 1PM, but a super generous man gave us two chairs his family wasn't using. Thank you, New Jersey citizen!

We then went to the zero entry toddler pool. I've become a huge fan of these zero entry pools that replicate the beach. It allows me to walk into the water at my own pace without having to jump in.

But I was also still a big fan of the baby pool area that had some structures and animal-shaped fountains for us to play with. If I wanted to get out of the water and play in the wet playground, there was also one available.

For the older kids, there was an obstacle course as well. And three fun water slides that were at least 3-4 stories tall.

And for the hard working fathers and mothers out there, there was the lazy river where you could just circle the park for hours at a time.

For us New Yorker types who travel "asset light," there was the town pool snack shop that had kid-oriented and tasty food. But as you can see, they had more than just the chicken fingers, pizza and hot dogs - they had nachos, tacos, churros (perhaps there's a big Hispanic community down there?). Now, I don't think Michelin will award Crystal Springs snack bar any fine dining stars, but the quality was actually much better than what we usually find at these types of places.

But for those families that enjoy bringing their own food, you could reserve one of the multiple picnic areas and BBQ grill whatever you wanted to bring and throw on the charcoal grills.

Not bad for a local New Jersey town pool, right?

Monday, August 24, 2015

IHG Accelerate Q4 Promotion

While we normally stay at Starwood in an attempt to re-qualify for Platinum status, it looks like we'll lock up 25 SPG stays later this week, so we can "cheat" on our Starwood if the stars lined up. And it looks like they have.

This morning, IHG announced their new promotion for the Fall 2015 called Accelerate. Similar to prior promotions, they have it set up as a sort of scavenger hunt where you have to complete a series of discrete tasks with a bonus if you complete a certain number of them. We leveraged their Big Win promotion back in 2013 when we stayed at the Intercontinental San Juan and earned tons of IHG points.

When my mother logged into her Accelerate offer, we found she was given the following tasks:

(1) Stay Once - 1 night for 5,000 points
(2) Stay More - 5 nights for 6,800 points
(3) Book 1 Bonus Points Package - 2,000 points
(4) Pay for a stay on IHG Credit Card - 1,500 points
Achievement Bonus - Complete 3 of 4 tasks - 34,700 points.

Nothing seemed that difficult, but the most compelling feature was that items #1, 3 and 4 could all be accomplished simultaneously with a single stay! For that single night stay, she could earn 8,500 promotional points (in addition to whatever points she would earn for the stay itself). But since her Achievement Bonus was 34,700 points for hitting 3 of the 4 tasks, we'd earn that too! Total promotional points would be 43,200 points (worth between $302-432 in value to my family).

Now we just had to find a cheap IHG hotel that we'd want to stay in. Ideally, it would be for a trip that we already had planned and would be priced comparably to our best Starwood option. We had two trips coming up in October - Phoenix and Chicago.

Both cities had PLENTY of IHG hotels, especially the lower priced Holiday Inn brands. However, since my father likes to impose the additional constraint of limiting the additional $ spend for these sorts of points-generating activities, we didn't want to overpay too much. After all, spending $100 more than the best Starwood hotel option might not be worth the privilege of earning IHG bonus points. Then we'd just be buying those points for the premium we're paying in cash.

So when we looked at prices for Phoenix, we had one night we could swap out our existing Aloft Phoenix stay for, but cheapest Holiday Inn price for a Bonus Points Package was around $150 after taxes. That compared unfavorably to the Aloft Phoenix which we were getting for just 3,000 SPG points (which we valued at $75). Not ideal.

Then we looked at Chicago. Our existing booking was at the Westin in Itasca that we stayed at earlier this year. We had a great upgrade to a massive corner suite and they also had an indoor swimming pool. However, it was located a bit further from our friends than we'd prefer (about 20 minutes), so we looked at some IHG hotels closer to our friends.

As it turned out, we found a recently renovated Holiday Inn Express located just 5 minutes away for $115 including taxes for the Bonus Points Package. That compared pretty favorably to the $97 rate (after tax) we had at the Westin Itasca. An $18 upcharge is a modest price to pay for 43,200 IHG points.

Of course, a Westin is a full service hotel versus a limited service Holiday Inn Express, so if it weren't for this promotion, we'd definitely go with the Westin (especially since we'd have Platinum status benefits).

But all guests get free internet and breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express, and maybe we'd even an upgrade for having IHG Platinum status. We're not expecting to be amazed, but hopefully we won't be regretting the switch hotels either.

Worst case, we're still going to stay the second night of our Chicago trip at the Westin. Besides, we don't really plan to be in the hotel for much anyway!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Recipe for Paypal Shutdown

For the past several months, my parents have been actively using our various Paypal accounts. This has helped us both (a) meet minimum spend requirements for credit cards and (b) generate a lot of point/mile rewards.

Here's our recipe for success (as defined by being so good at generating fake spend that Paypal shuts you down).

1. Paypal Account
2. Paypal Debit Card
3. Paypal My Cash Reload Card
4. Citi Credit Card

The Recipe
First, we would purchase a Paypal MyCash at a Duane Reade, CVS or 7-11 and load $500 on each card. Including the $3.95 loading fee, we'd be "spending" $503.95 each card. Ideally, we would use our Citi credit card which would post a $503.95 transaction several days later.

Second, we would load the $500 of value onto our online Paypal account. Since our Paypal Debit card was linked to the account, we could use the Debit card anywhere debit cards are accepted.

Third, we would then call up Citi and ask to pay down $500 of our outstanding credit card balance using our debit card. Normally, banks prefer you use a linked checking account (ACH transfers are free for them), but Citi is the only major bank willing to eat the debit card transaction fees to take your payment. The payment posts immediately.

Fourth, we would pay off the residual $3.95 outstanding credit card balance so that we get back to a $0 balance on our Citi credit card. So at the end of the day, you could generate at least 504 points for a net cash outlay of $3.95, which implies a cost per point of 0.8 cents.

The Math
However, my father was using a Citi card that had a special 6 month promotion that earned him 3x Thank You points on any regular spend. Because of this promotion, we actually generated 1,512 points on each transaction, which was worth $18.90 (1,512 points x 3 pts/$ x 1.25 cents/point). So a net profit of $14.95 per transaction.

Multiply this recipe about 8-20x a month for multiple months and you can see how prolific we were in this strategy.

The Shutdown
Unfortunately, last week, we received a notification from Paypal that our accounts were now limited due to unusual transaction activity.
We recently noticed an issue with your account. What's the problem? We would like to learn more about some of your recent transactions. Case ID Number: PP-XXX-XXX-XXX-709
Because of this issue, your account has been permanently limited. We understand this may be frustrating and inconvenient but you'll still be able to see your transaction history for a limited time. You can get more details about your account limitation in the Resolution Center. 
For more information, please contact us and we'll do our best to help. You'll be able to withdraw money from your account within 180 days. We'll email you when it's available. We just want to make sure that you have money in your account to cover any payment reversals.
Fortunately, we didn't have a lot of money tied up in our Paypal accounts. It would have been a pretty big problem if we had say $3,000 tied up for 6 months, but we only had about $35 since we were using our Paypal accounts to pay for our discounted Lyft rides.

Then a few minutes later, we received a notification from Paypal stating that we could now withdraw our remaining funds, so we immediately logged on and withdrew the small balance we had in our accounts.

Paypal can be a great strategy to generate a lot of "spend," but they clearly don't want you using their platform to do so. While we were not doing anything illegal, the pattern of behavior is likely similar to criminals who are doing something nefarious. So we completely understood when Paypal shut us down to reduce their exposure. As with many things in this game, proceed with caution and take calculated risks.

Now what's next...?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Surprise From Club Carlson

A few months ago, we decided to downgrade our Club Carlson Visa when the first year was over and the $85 annual fee was about to hit. We discovered there was a "secret" no fee version of the card.

Since (a) we didn't really plan on earning points with this card after getting the 85,000 point sign up bonus and (b) didn't really find that many compelling Club Carlson hotels we wanted to stay at, we didn't think paying the fee for another year was worth it, even after the card would give us another 40,000 points.

We ended up just making some random hotel redemptions before the expiration of the Last Night Free benefit. One 2-night booking for my grandmother and aunt in Rome at the Radisson Blu and another 2-night booking at Niagara Falls for my parents and me over Labor Day weekend.

We thought we'd just sock-drawer the Club Carlson card and not really think about it again, but then yesterday, we received a surprise letter in the mail.
"U.S. Bank is committed to providing service excellence to our cardholders. In appreciation of your continued support and for being a loyal Club Carlson Visa cardholder, we are pleased to provide you with one E-Certificate for one night in a standard roomat any Carlson Rezidor hotel worldwide. Your E-Certificate will be delivered in an email from Club Carlson."
Wow, that's a very generous offer for doing absolutely nothing at all!  Where in the world should we use it?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Eating Our Way Through The North Fork - Little Creek Oyster Farm

After a relaxing afternoon visiting farms and vineyards, we decided to get find some fresh seafood for an early supper.

Thanks to my mother's Yelp! phone app, my family found a novel experiential snack in Little Creek Oyster Farm down by the port area of Greenport.

You can almost miss this place, because it's located in the back and only has the "Bait Tackle" sign. This place was actually the restaurant/retail store outpost of the Peconic Bay sustainable oyster farm.

The kitschy place is really tiny inside, but they do have several outdoor picnic tables for seating as well. The menu is even more sparse with only oysters and clams along with a variety of drinks, including a bloody mary made with beer and topped with a raw oyster ($10).

The novelty comes in when you see the menu. You can order some raw oysters that are already shucked for you (as you would in a regular restaurant) for $30 a dozen. But you can save a lot of money (almost 50%) if you opt to shuck the oysters yourselves ($16 a dozen).

Now, shucking oysters isn't for the dainty princesses of the world. But my family loves getting our hands dirty and having experiences. Plus, it's hard for my father to pass up a big deal like 50% off.

So we ordered two dozen DIY oysters ($30). Soon, we were brought a bucket of 24 raw oysters on ice and knives, along with some gloves.

They taught us how to hold the oysters (flat side up with the nob pointing to 3 o'clock).  It took a few tries, but my parents and aunt got the hang of it eventually.

It also helped using the wooden oyster holder that allowed us to push the knife in with force without fear of missing the oyster and stabbing your gloved hand.

It was all pretty safe, but since I wasn't allowed to play with the knifes, they gave me a wooden stick and small shell to practice on.

After we shucked our two dozen oysters ourselves, we showcased them proudly on the tray.

We even had one oyster with a "good luck" oyster pea crab that my aunt found as she shucked her oyster. While it didn't look particularly appetizing, my father decided he would eat it and take the good luck!

According to my father, it had a crunch and a liquid burst with little "meat" to chew on. The texture was more the dominant sensation than the flavor which has been described as "sweeter than most shrimp, with grassy, mineral notes and a little bit of sea salt." Apparently a delicacy among certain circles, my father didn't mind either way.