Travel hacking trips page

By Josh  July 24, 2018 (This post will be maintained periodically)

I thought it would be a good idea to share a list of the trips that my travel hacking [obsession] has allowed me to cover in the past few years, since really taking up the hobby in March 2016. If you are interested in finding out more the various points and miles programs I use, please browse this page (contains referral links that may benefit me, at no cost to you).

So I lied. My very first travel hacking booking actually happened before I started this hobby. I was traveling a lot for work starting in December 2014, so by August of 2015 I had a lot of Hilton Honors points. I used 80,000 for 2 nights at the Embassy Suites in downtown Indianapolis to attend my cousin’s wedding. My parents stayed in the room with me, and I slept on the pull-out couch in the “living room” portion of the suite. But the points came free from my work travel, so it didn’t cost me anything to be able to help out my parents with lodging expenses and we all stayed a couple blocks away from the wedding reception venue (the Eiteljorg Museum).

August 2016 – I used Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points to fly back “home” to Indiana to attend my 15-year High School Class Reunion. The reunion was co-located with a local non-profit’s wine, craft and music event at a local winery, but thunderstorms throughout the day kinda ruined the evening plans. We had 100 students in our graduating class, and 13 of us showed up for the 15 year reunion…

IMG_20160813_205539861_TOP

October 2016 – 2 nights in Downtown Orlando using Hilton Honors points. I was a Diamond member at the time, so I was able to book a special Diamond rate for 40,000 HHonors points per night, instead of the listed rate of 66,000/night.

Christmas-New Years 2016/17 – I live in Florida, but grew up in rural Indiana. I always get the mom-guilt-trip about coming home for Christmas, so I used Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points for my flights. I only paid $11.20 out of pocket to cover the September 11th security fee, both ways $5.60.

October 2017 – 2 nights in Orlando, across the street from Universal Studios. I used 80,000 HHonors points for a deluxe room with a view of the theme park. I could have saved (I think) 5,000 points per night by going with a standard view room, and I will actually do that going forward. It was impressive, but a little further away from the action at the park than I expected.

Christmas/New Years 2017/18 – If you haven’t noticed the theme, this is just a continuation of that same pattern. Moving along…

February 2018 – A change in my travel theme! This trip was a 2-day trip to Indianapolis, but for a very special reason. My hometown high school girls basketball team was playing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (where the Indiana Pacers play!) in the State Championship game at the Class 2A level. I booked my flights on Southwest (again) for about 25,000 RRs. This was booked only 7 days in advance, so tickets were a little bit more expensive than I had seen only a few days earlier, but I waited until the buzzer sounded in their THRILLING OVERTIME VICTORY at the Semi-State game to book my flights. I also used 40,000 Hilton Honors points for a single night at the Homewood Suites in Downtown Indy, just 2 blocks away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Unfortunately the Lady Falcons did not win the State Championship, but they led at halftime and were very close the whole way, despite our two best players competing with torn ACLs. These girls are TOUGH!IMG_20180224_125444

April 2018 – My parents were visiting with me in Southwest Florida, but their best friends (and practically my second set of parents) were in Orlando at the Gaylord Palms Resort, so we planned to spend a day with them at their resort and in the general area of International Drive. I used 35,000 of my IHG points to book 1 night at the Holiday Inn Resort near Disney Springs. By carrying my IHG card, I automatically have Platinum Elite status, which gave us free drink coupons, free parking, and expedited check-in & check-out. We had an awesome time visiting with our friends, had margaritas with chips & salsa at Señor Frogs, and the 5 of us were able to beat an escape room in 48 minutes and change! This was an amazing trip for just burning some IHG points.

May 2018 – I’ve got a whole post on My Freedom Trip to Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston. To recap, I used Delta Skymiles (AKA SkyPesos), IHG points, Hilton Honors points, JetBlue TrueBlue Miles, and transferred a couple thousand Chase Ultimate Rewards to Hyatt for a second Hyatt redemption. JetBlue TrueBlue points (again) rounded out the trip.

June 2018 – I had a business trip to Phoenix, with a very early morning flight scheduled out of Tampa. Since I live about 2 hours away from the Tampa airport, I didn’t want to leave my house at about 3AM to get there in time, so I drove up the night before and stayed at the Holiday Inn Westgate – Tampa airport, which allowed me to sleep in until almost 5AM and still make it with plenty of time to spare. This was a 20,000 point IHG redemption, and I stayed on a floor reserved for Platinum Elite members, with a complimentary lounge.

Upcoming trips (planned so far):

Thanksgiving 2018 – Fly home on Southwest Rapid Rewards points (just shy of 20k) to be with family on Thanksgiving, but also to celebrate my parents 40th wedding anniversary on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

A travel hacking sin

By Josh July 17, 2018

Sorry for the click-baity headline, but I truly committed a sin in the world of travel hacking earlier today: I bought POINTS with cash! To be more specific, I bought Starwood Preferred Group (SPG) Starpoints, and I used a card that will earn Chase Ultimate Rewards for the purchase today.

A little bit of backstory: SPG Starpoints are considered one of the most valuable travel rewards points/currencies in the game, for many reasons. First, they are difficult to obtain in large numbers, so they are relatively rare. Second, they are transferable at a 1:3 ratio with Marriott (which is absorbing/merging Starwood into the Marriott family of properties and closing down the SPG program completely on August 1). Third, and one of the most popular redemptions, SPG points can be transferred to several airline programs at a 1:1 ratio, but they will give you a 5k bonus in airline miles when you transfer your SPG points in bundles of 20k.

Since SPG is folding at the end of this month, I started to consider what I wanted to do with my Starpoints in terms of redemption. I started collecting Starpoints in February of 2017, when I signed up for the SPG personal card from American Express. It comes with a $95 annual fee, but I originally earned 35k Starpoints upon opening the card, and I called for a retention offer at the 1 year mark and they gave me another 7k Starpoints for spending $1,000 in 90 days. In addition to those 42k Starpoints, I also had earned some points by spending on non-bonus categories with the SPG card, earned a few points from stays at Marriott properties, and I completed the Sunday Twitter promotion with Marriott Rewards and the NFL last fall for 1,000 Marriott points per weekend.

But most recently, I have spent a total of 11 nights in Starwood properties (Sheraton Downtown Phoenix and Four Points by Sheraton San Diego – Sea World) for two work-related conferences. In addition to earning Starpoints for my stays, I earned Starpoints for participating in the Green Choice program, which offered 250 or 500 points per night for declining room cleaning services. I also signed up for a double-dip promotion that Starwood and Delta Airlines has had for the past couple years, and I chose to be awarded extra Starpoints. The sum total of these actions left me with 76,101 Starpoints when I woke up this morning. Remember that Starpoints are worth 3x as many Marriott reward points, so that means I had the equivalent of 228,303 Marriott points.

So why did I commit the cardinal sin of buying points? SPG is currently running a 35% off sale on Starpoints purchased between now and July 20th (THIS FRIDAY), if you purchase more than 5k Starpoints. I ended up buying 14,000 Starpoints for $318.50 (regular price $490) so that I could bring my total up to 90,000 Starpoints. By transferring my 90,000 Starpoints to Marriott this morning, I was able to bring my Marriott total to 270,000. WHY 270,000?? That happens to be the price of a “hotel & flight package” that will reward me most handsomely with a certificate good for a 7-night stay in any Marriott Category 1-5 property PLUS 120,000 Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points. Marriott has several of these packages available, with a couple dozen airlines, and different redemption values if you want a smaller amount of airline miles/Avios, or if you want a fancier hotel. My main goal was to get a “good” redemption for my Starpoints, while maximizing my Southwest miles.

So the math comes out like this: $0.022 per Starpoint, which is actually less than the value “The Points Guy” places on them at $0.027, so the sale is worth it from the start. If I had made the Marriott hotel and flight package redemption with only my 228,303 point balance from before the purchase, I would have received 70,000 Southwest RR miles. By buying those 14k Starpoints (equivalent to 42k Marriott points) I was able to get an additional 50,000 Rapid Rewards. The Points Guy values Southwest Rapid Rewards at $0.015 per mile, so I gained an additional $750 in value of Rapid Rewards for paying $318.50 to Starwood this morning. A great deal, if you can find a valuable redemption like I found.

A big warning to anyone who reads this: The SPG program is folding on August 1, 2018, as I mentioned at the top. Marriott has released the category charts for hotels as of August 1, and they will be adding additional categories and “off-peak” and “peak” pricing as time goes along. They also recently released the news that the hotel and flight packages are getting more expensive, and/or you won’t receive as many airline miles. That was the sole cause of my rush to use these Starpoints before August 1.

My Freedom Trip – May 2018

By Josh Published June 30, 2018

Hello reader! As I began typing this post, I was sitting on an Amtrak train on the Coast Starlight route, from Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington. The trip took 34 hours, and included magnificent sights including the Pacific Ocean, Silicon Valley, and Mt. Rainier.

The trip was possible because I had scheduled 15 days of “Funemployment” between jobs. I needed to turn in my work vehicle and all of my work materials and computer equipment when I left employment with the State of Florida. But since I live in Southwest Florida, and the State Capitol is in Tallahassee (in the Panhandle), I started my trip with a 400-mile drive to Tallahassee for one last work day.

Day 2, in the morning I turned in my stuff and said goodbyes. In the afternoon, I took an Uber to the Tallahassee airport, and then I flew to Atlanta, Georgia, which is a hub for a large portion of trips to/from the Southeast US. I booked the flight on Delta, using 32,000 Delta Skymiles I had accumulated over the years, mostly from a 30,000 Skymiles offer on the Gold Delta Skymiles credit card from American Express a couple years ago. Don’t be like me, wait for a 60,000 or 70,000 point offer before you sign up for this card. American Express cards are usually only available once per “lifetime”.

While in Atlanta, I was able to use my Priority Pass Select membership (free with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card) to spend a free hour in the Minute Suites in Terminal B at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It was nice to unwind a bit, kick my shoes off, and have room to spread out, without having to keep a vigilant eye on my luggage.31557195_211205462988170_3385738348822790144_n

From Atlanta, I could arrive in just about any major city in the US, so I caught a cheap flight on Southwest for only $130. I had a voucher for $51 from finding a fare reduction on a previous business trip, so I only had to pay $79 out of pocket. I have developed the habit of arriving early and asking the gate agent if there are any available seats on the plane, and this time there were 32 empty seats. So my next question for the agent is to see if I can get an extra seat and pre-boarding due to my height and large frame. This has worked on each of my last 6 flights with Southwest. This way, I’m able to raise the armrest between the two seats and sit diagonally to gain some extra legroom.

I arrived at LAX and caught a quick Uber to my hotel a couple miles away. I had initially booked 5 nights of lodging at 3 different hotels in the Los Angeles area, but when I left a Facebook message for my cousins living in the Anaheim/Buena Park area that I was flying in that night, they reached out to me to have me cancel my stays and sleep in their guest bedroom. One night at the Holiday Inn LAX ran me 30,000 IHG points (and I got 2,000 back from an Accelerate promo), earned from the Chase IHG credit card last fall (100,000 point offer for $2,000 spend in 90 days), and I was able to check-out early and recoup the points that would have been spent for my second night stay. I was able to cancel my 4th & 5th nights stay easily and got the points refunded, but unfortunately I changed my plans too late for the cancellation window on my 3rd night stay at the Hotel MdR – a DoubleTree Hotel in Marina del Rey. I used 50,000 Hilton Honors points, and since I couldn’t get them refunded, I went ahead and borrowed my cousin’s car (she had left on a trip to Ohio the night prior) and I went exploring in that area, and went ahead and stayed in the hotel, since the points had been spent, anyway.

On Day 4, I set out to adventure with my counsin’s car. From Buena Park, I drove to the Santa Monica Pier, then went on the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, turned around and came back towards Hollywood via Sunset Boulevard to the UCLA campus, and on to Rodeo Drive before driving back to Marina del Rey to beat the evening rush hour. After checking in, I walked about 2 miles to Venice Beach and grabbed an early supper at Cabo Cantina, to munch on some chips & salsa and a quesadilla, while sipping a margarita and watching the Cavs-Raptors Game 2. I walked back to the hotel and spent the majority of the evening relaxing poolside and called my parents to fill them in on my trip so far.

Day 5, after checking out of the hotel and grabbing the breakfast buffet (should have been a $4 upcharge from the complimentary continental breakfast I receive for my Gold status at Hilton properties, but the waiter was gracious to upgrade me for free), I drove back to Buena Park and went golfing with my cousin’s husband. We played “Dad Miller Golf CLub” which is where Tiger Woods played when he was in high school. Apparently the guy named Dad Miller was a 93 year-old golfer who hit a hole-in-one on the 11th hole, and they named the course after him! I hadn’t really planned on golfing during this trip, so I didn’t have my normal golf clothes, shoes, hat, glove, golfballs, or golf clubs(!) so I played in a too-heavy shirt, tennis shoes, no hat, and with borrowed clubs, on a club I’d never heard of before that morning, so I was fairly pleased with my 93 I carded that day. My playing partner shot 108 and he’s a member, so I felt decent about the round, given all of those limiting factors.31028404_240783569991601_4917978647614193664_n

That evening, I went to a school carnival at my little cousins’ elementary school. They are finishing up 1st and 6th grades, so they were excited to show off their school projects from the whole year to their parents and their unexpected-visitor/cousin from Florida 🙂

Day 6 happened to be Cinco de Mayo, and being in Southern California, I knew there’d be a party! This time, my other cousin hosted a bunch of us at her (very nice) house with a pool in the backyard. All of my little cousins were jumping onto and playing with their “Cous-uncle Josh” because I’m the age of their uncles, but I’m officially their cousin (2nd cousin, once removed?). I got way too much sun, and had way too much fun. Ate way too much chips & salsa and had a few adult beverages to wash it all down.30957250_548424358891774_3502835478187474944_n

Day 7, before heading to Union Station, my golf buddy (cousin’s hubby) took me to see Huntington Beach, where the AVP was hosting the annual Huntington Beach Open beach volleyball tournament. Action had not yet started for the day, but it was cool to see it up-close, since I’ve seen it on TV several times in the past. Upon arriving downtown at Union Station, I checked in to get my seat assignment and grabbed a handful of snacks for the train. I found my train platform and fairly quickly found my seat (and the empty one next to me, which I definitely will not complain about!). I booked this train trip (LA–>Seattle) on the Amtrak website for $122 cash out of pocket. I went with a regular coach seat, knowing that there is ample legroom and wider-than-airline seats, 120v outlets, and it’s possible to get up and explore the train (dining car, observation car with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a café lounge car that operates like a mini 7-Eleven onboard the train). We got delayed by more than an hour in the Oakland area, and have been gradually losing more time between stops. But this caused us to be near Mt. Shasta as the sun was rising, and I got to see some cool sights that would normally have been passed by during the dark.

Around 9pm on Day 8, I arrived in Seattle, and checked in at the Grand Hyatt Seattle for two nights, with a list price of $548/night. I paid 15,000 Hyatt points per night instead, which I earned from the 40,000 point sign-up bonus on the Chase Hyatt credit card (plus a 5,000 point bonus for adding an Authorized User when I opened the card). I can’t believe I got nearly $1,100 in value out of that Hyatt card signup bonus, with another 15,000 points remaining that I used for Day 11 in Boston.

On Day 9, I purchased the CityPass for $89, which includes admission to 5 top destinations, including the Space Needle, Chihuly Museum & Gardens, Museum of Pop culture, Seattle Aquarium, and the Argosy Harbor Cruise (the 5 options I chose; you can opt for a different museum in place of Chihuly and #MoPop), and these are valued at over $160. I woke up to a perfect weather day, sunny and in the upper 50s. Working through the list of suggestions from friends and locals I had tapped via Twitter (Shoutouts to @CeceMcKiernan, my friend Kelli @FloodGeek101, Angela from @TreadLightly_RE, and Ty Roberts from @CampFIREfinance, along with some Twitterless peeps), I started out in search of breakfast at Biscuit Bitch. These Bitches are very popular, and there was a line out the door for people to get their hands on some scrumptious fixin’s and coffee. I Tweeted to the OG Bitches (@bitchesgetrich) that I found their Mothership!

Moving on from there, I walked 2 blocks to Pike Place Market, which was full of merchants getting set up for the day. I walked around for a bit and checked out the GumWall, which might be cool to some people, but I’ve seen more gum on one wall at a loose-meat sandwich shoppe in Greenville, Ohio (Shoutout to Maid-Rites). From there, I walked through Belltown to check out the Space Needle in Seattle Center. The Space Needle is undergoing a “Spacelift” (facelift) right now, so my views were partially obstructed by construction workers and ongoing construction, but it was such an amazing view. Mt. Rainier stands so much higher than, and closer to, Seattle than I expected! With the morning’s marine mist still showing up, the peak of Mt. Rainier looked like a perfectly-painted mountain from a Bob Ross painting, sticking its head above the clouds.

After Space Needle, I checked out the Chihuly Museum and Gardens, which were impressive, but I had already seen a large collection of Chihuly works at the Morean Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. I also went to the Museum of Pop Culture, but felt underwhelmed by it :/ Last on the agenda for sight-seeing was a one-hour harbor cruise around the Elliott Bay, which was full of opportunity to take more pictures of the Seattle skyline and enjoy the nice sunny day. The onboard bar didn’t hurt, either!

As cool as those sights were, the highlight of my day came later, around Happy Hour, when I met up with a fellow Personal Finance blogger for the first time. Ty Roberts had a meeting downtown, and met me for a beer at Yard House. Honestly, this was the first time I’ve ever been able to talk to someone In Real Life about FI, FIRE, blogging, and this PF community that I honest-to-goodness LOVE. Ty was so easy to talk to, encouraging, and I just had the most amazing chat with him. I can’t wait to experience more of that at FinCon in Orlando this September!31413927_377655086063470_2628653116253274112_n

Day 10, I wanted to check out more sights that were recommended to me, so I walked to Pier 51 to catch the Ferry to Bainbridge Island for $8.35 (round-trip).

The ride over & back were the most enjoyable part for me, because I arrived so early in the morning that most, if not all, of the local shops had not opened for the day (around 10-10:30AM). In fact, I hopped back on the return ferry by 10:25 and made it back to Seattle by 11. After that, I used up the last ticket in my CityPass to check out the Seattle Aquarium just a few piers away. In the early afternoon, I went back to the hotel to shower up and pack my bag so I could check out of the hotel room by 2pm (late checkout granted for my World of Hyatt Discoverist status). I left my bag with the front desk, and took the Link over to the University of Washington campus to check it out.

After walking around campus for about an hour, I went back to the hotel, grabbed my bag, and took the Link to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Arriving at the airport 7 hours before my flight was not ideal, but I was able to once again use my Priority Pass Select to gain entry to an airport lounge with free snacks and beverages. The Priority Pass app shows 5 lounges that we are supposedly able to access, but the Alaska Airlines lounges had signs at the entrance that said they were not accepting Priority Pass holders that day. So I walked up and down every terminal (C, D, B and then A) except N & S, and counted at least 10 airport lounges in that airport. I finally gained access to The CLUB at SEA where I spent a couple hours charging my devices, listening to a podcast, called my grandma (awww) and took advantage of somde free snacks.img_20180509_201456

At the end of Day 10, at one minute until midnight(!) I flew on a JetBlue flight in Mint class (first class with a lay-flat seat) to Boston. I booked the flight using JetBlue TrueBlue points, only 33,700 points, when that class was listed on other flights the same day for 70,000-110,000 points). I figured for my first-ever Red-Eye flight, it was a good idea to trade-up for some comfort, and I really wanted to check out Mint, anyway.

Arriving in Boston on Day 11, I will use some additional Hyatt points (15,000/night) at the Hyatt Regency Boston in downtown. Unfortunately I was about 1900 points shy of having the 15,000 needed for my second night, so I transferred 2,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points at a 1:1 transfer ratio to Hyatt from my accumulated Chase points (reminder: I have Chase Sapphire Reserve, Freedom and Freedom Unlimited, and I transfer all of my rewards to my Sapphire Reserve points balance to allow the points transfers to Chase’s travel partners). I was pretty exhausted from the overnight travel, but I did manage to walk 2+ miles to Fenway Park to take the tour of a sports and cultural icon, with some amazing views of the city.

 

Day 12, having caught up on sleep, I set out for a day of exploring. I had previously visited Boston in 2003, on a family trip before I turned 21, so I knew I had to stop at Cheers and have an adult beverage. I checked out the Freedom Trail and walked over to Bunker Hill and the USS Constitution. I also killed at least an hour watching various street performers in the Quincy Market area. I explored Chinatown a little bit and grabbed a local hard cider to go along with my dinner.

Day 13, I took the Silver Line MBTA bus to Boston-Logan International airport for $2.75 instead of the $23 and change that I paid a (terrible) Uber drive on Day 11 morning when I arrived in Boston. For my return flight to Southwest Florida (RSW airport), I used 8,600 TrueBlue points from JetBlue. I had these points plus the Day 10 red-eye flight points from the Barclays JetBlue Plus card, which came with a 40,000 point bonus for spending only $1,000 in 90 days. I forgot that the card also gives me a 10% refund on award redemptions, so I ended up getting  over 4,000 TrueBlue points back into my account (over $80 worth at 2c a piece).

So I share this whole story to say that I went overboard on a 13 day trip to celebrate the end of my previous job. I worked in a position that was effectively a full-time temp for almost 3.5 years. Due to this work status, I did not have any paid holidays or vacation time in that time, so I had this pent-up urge to hit the road, skies and rails to see more of this magnificent country. I could probably do without the overwhelming scent of weed/pot in the various cities/states I visited, but that only minimally reduced my enjoyment of these fine places. I’m excited to be moving into a position where I will be earning a standard 2 weeks of vacation and 11 paid holidays to help me get back on the road moving forward. I’m glad I had the opportunity to bank all of these various points so I could use them in this blowout trip around the US. Many in the travel-hacking community chirp the mantra of “earn and burn” or “churn and burn,” because there are constant devaluations occurring in the many points & miles programs. But for someone like me, there were zero opportunities to use the points/miles over the past 3 years (except for a few quick trips “home” to Indiana for the holidays) so the points were worthless to me until I could actually use them. And it was SOOO worth it once I could actually use them on a trip that will be in my memory bank until the day I die.

Useful travel tools: TripIt Pro

By Jover March 10, 2018

For a long time, I avoided the whole world of travel hacking. I don’t know if it was the word “hacking” in the name, or if I was just OK with earning 1% cash-back or some points to spend at Best Buy (a former addiction) with all of my usual purchases. I didn’t shy away from it for the “Anti-Credit Cards” reasons that D.R. preaches, because I had already been responsibly using credit cards since 2005, when I first got out of college.

Once I made up my mind to try it, I fell down the rabbit hole. If you’re interested in starting, don’t open any cards until you’ve taken the free course at TravelMiles101.com. It will change your life! I also have a resources post here on the blog if you’re looking for more digestible information on some of the top cards on the market.

Once you have a stash of points burning a hole in your pocket, you might start making all sorts of travel plans. Confirmations for flights, hotels, and event tickets start to clog up your inbox. This is where TripIt can be a huge help. TripIt is a product of Concur, one of the largest travel and expense management service companies for businesses, and it feels like they’ve made this product for both leisure and business travelers.

I travel frequently for business, and I have a mixture of business and personal hotel reservations floating around in my inbox at any given time. I also get email confirmations on my parents’ travel plans, especially when they come here to Florida to visit me. Sometimes I will also reserve a hotel room *just in case* because it’s a busy time of year such as the Legislative Session in the state capital city. Once you link TripIt to your email inbox, they do all of the rest.

Take a look at the screenshot below. It shows all of my upcoming travel plans that involve a flight or an already-booked hotel and/or event ticket. The trip in September in Orlando is my first FINCON! 🙂

Screenshot_20180309-224830

As you can see, I have some upcoming workshops and conferences already in my travel plans. If you click on any of the individual trips, it will show you an itinerary of all of your related travel confirmations, as shown below.

InkedScreenshot_20180309-222633_LI

I upgraded to TripIt Pro in August 2017, and I am thankful that I did. They were running a special at the time, $34 for the first year, regular price $49. Now I receive “Go Now Alerts” which tell me when to leave for the airport, Terminal and Gate reminders (which help when traveling through an unfamiliar airport or when gates suddenly change), Check-in reminders (24 hours before on Southwest Airlines flights to get a good boarding position, amirite?), automatic trip sharing with your network that you set up in the app (great for work or for personal reasons), and best-of-all: Flight Refund Monitoring!

Last night, I received an email from TripIt at 9:18pm stating that my upcoming flight to Atlanta had decreased in price by $51, and they gave me the steps to follow to request that refund. I called Southwest and they were able to quickly make the change, and gave me a $51 flight voucher, good for one year from the purchase date of this flight. This one refund more than paid for my $34 annual fee on TripIt Pro! I’m totally sold.

In case you’re not quite sold, here’s a few more benefits:

  1. Point Tracker – once you get involved in the travel hacking game, you will have points spread across multiple hotel, airline and flexible bank point programs. This saves a lot of time spent manually tracking your various points.
  2. Seat Tracker – helps you find a better seat on flights
  3. LoungeBuddy – Comes with a free $25 airport lounge credit
  4. CLEAR – Not all airports have this service, but TripIt Pro comes with a 4 month free trial for the fastest way through airport security, even faster than TSA Pre-Check!

Financial products I use

By Josh March 4, 2018 but will be maintained periodically

[Caution: Many of the links below are referral links. They will not cost you anything extra, but I may earn some commission ($$ or travel points) if you click them and sign up for the products that I use and love!]

Banking:

JPMorgan Chase – I signed up in November 2016 and was awarded a $300 bonus for opening a Chase Total Checking account. I avoided monthly fees by maintaining at least $1500 daily balance. I also signed up recently for a Chase Business Checking account for my side hustle, to keep my business and personal finances separate. I got a free $300 for that, as well.

Charles Schwab High-Yield Checking: I signed up in February 2018 to receive a $100 bonus. This required me to also open a Charles Schwab brokerage account, with a minimum of $1,000 balance. The AWESOME thing about Charles Schwab bank is they refund ALL ATM FEES, including FOREIGN ATMs, which makes this a must-have for world travelers. The account also pays 0.20% interest, which is very high for a checking account.

Fifth-Third Bank: I signed up in February 2018 to receive a $200 bonus for depositing $500 for a minimum of 60 days. I actually put $1500 into the account to avoid an $11/month fee. Fifth-Third is based in the Midwest, but they have a lot of branches here in Southwest Florida, so it made sense for me to open an account with them for the benefit of their brick & mortar locations. I also had my car loan with them in August 2017-November 2017, so I already had my online account set up with them, which made for a very easy sign-up.

Hancock Whitney Bank (Obscure): I signed up in January 2018 to earn a $300 bonus on a $250 minimum account balance. The offer required using the account’s debit card at least 5 times, so I deposited a total of $300 to allow for up to $50 worth of spending on the debit card. I signed up online when I thought my job was going to be transferred to Tallahassee (400 miles away), but I recently found they have branches as far south as Sarasota, so closer to 75 miles away from me. I’ll still likely close this account in the fall, since my job did NOT get moved to Tallahassee, and I actually took a new job in May 2018 closer to home.

Credit Cards:

Chase Sapphire Reserve (This card has a $450 annual fee, but many people find it is more than worth it, based on the benefits). Don’t let the $450 annual fee scare you, since it offers an annual $300 travel credit that offsets 2/3 of that fee. Other benefits include Priority Pass Select membership that allows you to use over 1000 airport lounges around the world, free Global Entry or TSA Pre-check ($100 or $85 value), primary rental car insurance, excellent travel insurance and price protection coverage that come with all Visa Infinite cards. Earns Ultimate Rewards that are worth 1.5c each in the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel portal. 3x earning on Travel and Dining expenses, with 1x on everything else.

Chase Freedom – no annual fee card that earns 5% cashback on a difference spending category every quarter, up to $1,500 per quarter ($75 cashback).

Chase Freedom Unlimited – no annual fee card that earns 1.5% cashback on every purchase, every time. This is a great card to use for any spending that is not covered by a bonus category on another card. Pair this card with a Chase Sapphire (Preferred or Reserve) to make the cashback value worth more (1.25x or 1.5x).

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier – This card ($99 annual fee) is also from Chase, and earns Rapid Rewards for free flights on Southwest Airlines. The sign-up bonus changes throughout the year, from a low of 40,000 points to 60,000 points. They also have a Plus card and a business version, and some people sign up for 2 cards back-to-back to earn the minimum of 110,000 points required for the Southwest Companion Pass, which allows a companion to fly FREE (only pay September 11th security fee of $5.60 each way) for the remainder of the calendar year in which you earn the Companion Pass, AND ALL OF THE NEXT YEAR! Woo hoo free flights!

Starwood Preferred Guest by American Express – This card and hotel program may seem obscure at first, but the program is excellent! Starwood and Marriott are completing a merger soon, which converts all Starpoints into 3 Marriott Reward points, and you can redeem these points at over 10,000 hotels worldwide. In addition, points are transferrable to several airline programs at attractive rates, including a bonus of 5,000 points when you transfer in increments of 20,000. There’s currently an excellent redemption offer through Marriott where you can purchase a 7-night stay and earn 120,000 or 132,000 airline points from several of your choosing, but those offers are getting more expensive on August 1, 2018.

Hyatt card: The main perk of this credit card is that for an annual fee of $75, you get a free night certificate, good for any Category 1-4 Hyatt hotel. For example, you could get one night at the Hyatt Regency Dusseldorf (in Germany), that has nightly rates up to $1,598, or $605/night on average. The card also comes with a sign-up bonus of 40,000 points, which could be used for up to 8 nights at a 5,000/night Hyatt hotel, but a more common redemption would be 2 nights at 20,000 points each. You can get this card AFTER 5/24 status with Chase.

IHG Card: IHG or InterContinental Hotels Group is a large chain that includes Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, InterContinental, Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites, Even, avid, and Kimpton, among others. The major pluses on this card are the ability to get it AFTER 5/24 status with Chase, and a free night certificate for any property in exchange for the $89 annual fee. Also comes with Platinum Elite benefits as long as you hold the card.

Investment accounts:

Vanguard – because most of the funds you want to buy are Vanguard funds anyway. Why pay some middle-man when you can invest directly with them? I’m all about the VTSAX (Total stock market index fund – Admiral Shares) with 0.04% fees.

Betterment – I used Betterment for a few years while I was slowly building up my account balances and wanted their globally-diversified set of 12 index funds, balanced however you choose between stocks and bonds (I did 90/10). But once I decided to take a more active role in my investments, it didn’t make sense to pay 0.25% to Betterment when I could get the same funds for 84% lower fees with Vanguard. But it’s a great place for beginners!

Charles Schwab – One of the requirements of my High Yield Checking account with Schwab was that I set up a brokerage account with a minimum of $1000. Trading fees are $4.95, which is better than other brokerages I have used in the past (almost a decade ago, though).

Fidelity – I just signed up for this one this week, for a $200 bonus offer. Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard are the three titans of the low-cost investing world. Now I have some money with all 3.

 

 

The Tweet that Started this blog…

On the evening of January 5th, 2018, I posted this Tweet and it generated higher-than average interest, including a request for a blog post to explain what all of this means:Screenshot_20180201-023011

So, due to a request from Penny at ShePicksUpPennies.com, I’m writing this post on my re-launched blog to help explain what all of this is about, and why I would introduce so much additional hassle into my everyday transactions.

SportClips is my go-to place when I need to get a professional-looking haircut. Sometimes I cut my own. As the name implies, SportClips allows the customers to watch sports while getting their haircut, so their clientele is majority male. They continue the sports theme with their pricing scheme, a standard haircut is the Varsity, while kids are Junior Varsity. The MVP treatment includes the Varsity haircut, plus a relaxing shampoo in a massage chair, and a neck and shoulder massage with a hand-held massage tool.

J.P Morgan Chase (Chase) is my favorite banking institution, but it has very little to do with their brick and mortar locations or their banking procedures. Chase issues some of the most-rewarding consumer credit cards, with their Chase Sapphire and Chase Freedom “families” of cards. The rewards earned with Chase Sapphire (Preferred or Reserve) cards are called Ultimate Rewards, and those points are able to be transferred to nearly a dozen travel partner airlines and hotels. Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited only earn “cash-back” value, but if you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) or Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR), you can transfer that “cash-back value” into Ultimate Rewards, and then the points can be transferred to airline and hotel partner programs.

Chase Freedom Unlimited is easy to understand; all purchases earn 1.5c per dollar spent, on every purchase with no limits on the cash-back bonus. Chase Freedom earns 1c per dollar spent, with the exception of a specific category that changes each quarter. Those quarterly categories are worth 5c cash-back, up to a maximum of $1500 per quarter, which means $75 cash-back can be earned each quarter with the Freedom card.

CSP and CSR have access to the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, where the cardholder can book travel directly through Chase, just like they might from other OTA sites like Expedia or Priceline. CSP provides a value of 1.25c per Ultimate Reward point (URs) when booking travel through the travel portal. CSR provides 1.5c per UR in value.

Getting back to the Tweet in question, I used my Chase Freedom card to earn 5% back in the first quarter of 2018 by making the purchases via a mobile wallet (AndroidPay in this case). All of the various mobile wallets work for this category, including ApplePay, SamsungPay, AndroidPay and Chase’s own ChasePay. I just received an email this week that AndroidPay is being changed to GooglePay in the coming weeks. By transferring the 5% cashback value earned on my Chase Freedom card to my CSR (remember, 1.5x value), I effectively turned that 5% category into a 7.5% category for the MVP haircut on Jan 5th. For the $23 haircut and $5 tip ($28 total), I earned $1.96 in value. This compares favorably against a 2% cashback card ($0.52 that I would have earned).

Rounding out the Tweet, I frequently use different credit cards to purchase gift cards at grocery stores, Best Buy or Walmart to maximize limited-time offers such as 10% cashback for purchases with ChasePay in December for holiday shopping at Best Buy and Walmart (2 separate offers). Now I am sitting on a hoard of gift cards to restaurants, gas stations, Walmart, Starbucks and Lowe’s. I decided to pick some gift cards out of the drawer and enjoy a meal at Chili’s and a hot beverage (Caramel Apple Spice) at Starbucks without spending any additional dollars on my credit cards.

With one of those 10x offers at Best Buy, I bought $300 in gift cards, earned 10c back per dollar spent, and then transferred that cash-back value to my CSR for 1.5x additional value towards travel. Therefore, I earned $30 x 1.5 = $45 in travel for purchasing $300 in gift cards for future purchases that I will use throughout the upcoming year. 15% back for just knowing how to do it, where and when = win! 🙂