A chance to travel to Sweden

Posted on: March 19th, 2013 by: Jason

Each and everyone one of us usually has ancestors that came from another country. As an American traveling, I’m become appreciative of the different cultures, different landscapes, and different food varieties that are offered. Having ancestors that came from Sweden, I’m especially curious as to how they lived and struggled trying to survive back then.

A friend sent me a link to this concept. There is a TV show current playing in Sweden called “Allt för Sverige (Everything for Sweden)”. The concept is – they send 10 Americans who have Swedish ancestors back to Sweden to learn about the culture and to compete for a chance to meet their living relatives in Sweden.

I’ve been watching the series on YouTube. In the first episode, the 10 Americans go through a class on how to speak Swedish. They are then sent out to try out their newly learned language and then meet their neighbors for a “fika”. The look on the reserved Swedes faces as the Americans try to come into their house to eat snacks is priceless.

In another episode, the Americans have to compete with each other in a Swedish music contest. They have to listen to clips from Swedish artists such as ABBA, Europe, The Cardigans, and Håkan Hellström.

Personally, I have ancestors that came from Sweden – the show does a good job of putting the contestants through activities that their ancestors would have performed.

The show is looking for contestants to try out for the show. If you’re interested, the website is http://www.greatswedishadventure.com/

For those you with Norwegian ancestry – there’s also a Norway version as well.

When manufactured spend backfires

Posted on: March 11th, 2013 by: Jason

Several years ago at another company, I overheard a co-worker of mine lamenting to our travel agent that she didn’t have the credit score to get a credit card and wasn’t sure how she was going to pay for an upcoming business trip. At the time, I had some cards with some pretty sizable annual spend requirements and an idea came to me. What if I added her as an authorized user for the purpose of business purchases? She would receive the reimbursement from work, hand it to me to pay off the balance and it would be a win-win situation. She had the means to travel for business and I would rack up the minimum spend and miles.

I drew up a simple contract basically saying that whatever was purchased on the card whether it was reimbursed or not would be her responsibility. I ordered a card for her and put our plan into motion.

At the end of the first month, I printed off a statement with all of her charges and handed it to her. She turned in her receipt for reimbursement and handed me a check for the exact amount. We followed this pattern for several months and everything was working fine.

After the first six months, I started to notice some personal spending that started to slip in. I didn’t pay much attention to it as I would hand the statement over and receive a check for the full amount. It didn’t really bother me – and it was more free miles.

After a while though, I was handed the check on the payment due date rather than in advance. This meant that I had to have the necessary funds available to cover the entire balance in order to avoid late fees. This worked as well as their check always cleared but I was starting to get a bit nervous. On the other hand, huge sums were running through the card and I was racking up free miles.

After about a year and a half, she found another job with another company and gave her two weeks’ notice. I figured that this was a good time to stop the relationship and get the card back. I handed her the bill and she handed me a check. As I examined the final bill a couple of weeks later – something that was really peculiar was a rather large purchase from an electronics store with a return a couple days later. Why would there be a large purchase the final week of employment?

On a hunch, I inquired with our Accounts Receivables department and asked if there were any reimbursement checks that matched this large amount – and there was. This person had been purchasing large amounts of electronics, getting it reimbursed, and then returning the item(s) and pocketing the reimbursement. I immediately felt sick to my stomach as I felt like I had in some way been a part of this scheme. There was probably a good reason this person couldn’t get their own credit card – had I given a drunk a drink?

I went to the electronics store and asked for all the receipts associated with her card number. I then pulled all the reimbursements and they matched up almost perfect for the past year. I turned over all the information to our internal auditors who launched a huge investigation. I came under scrutiny as well as I was connected with the scheme but was able to show that I had no involvement. They ended up prosecuting her for fraud and reached a plea deal. I never heard from her again and am not sure whatever happened to her career.

The reason that I’m telling you this quite embarrassing story is to just provide some caution as we all look for creative ways to manufacture spend for some extra miles. Looking back, it was quite foolish of me to entrust a card to someone else no matter how perfect it seemed. If something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

How I cut my DirecTV cord to save money towards future travel

Posted on: February 23rd, 2013 by: Jason

I’ve paid for cable TV in one form of fashion for the past 10 years. Most recently I’ve been a DirecTV customer since 2008 when they offered 15,000 Priority Club points for sign up.

I had tried to cut down some of the cost by purchasing an owned receiver off of Ebay for so that I would skip the monthly rental fee. If you choose to go down this path, make sure that prior to buying you get the RID number from the seller (most post it in their pictures) and call DirecTV to confirm that it is in fact an owned receiver. I had a couple of people who stated in their auctions that their receivers were owned but DirecTV said they were in fact leased.

Even with doing this, my monthly DirecTV bill was $90 plus $6.95 monthly fee for my old school Series2 Tivo and $0 for my old school Series2 Tivo with lifetime service. This means that I was paying $1163.00 a year for the privilege of having access to cable TV. And for what? To watch American Pickers, Top Chef, Bar Rescue, and America’s Test Kitchen? Certainly there was a fair amount of sports as well. But is all that worth $1200 a year when I could be using that money for something else – perhaps travel?

I decided it was time to formulate a plan to cut the DirecTV cord and go for something a lot cheaper while still having access to some decent shows. I started by looking at different set boxes in order to run Amazon Prime, NetFlix, Vudu, Hulu Plus and all the other various on demand services out there. I ended up deciding on the Roku 2 XS mostly for the clean interface and that it has a ethernet connection on the back to cut down on buffering. I picked up a refurbished one up for $50 from 1saleaday.com and another from Costco for $80 that included an HDMI cord.

The Roku interface

Next, I had to find an Over the Air Antenna in order to pull down the free HD channels. The forums at TV Fool and instructions on Antenna Web were very helpful in helping to pick out the right antenna. You can even enter in your address and it will show a map of which direction to point your antenna to get the maximum amount of channels. I ended up purchasing the Antennas Direct DB4E Antenna for $55. A good friend came and installed it in my attic pointed in the correct direction.

I called Tivo to find out about upgrading to an HD receiver. The associate I spoke with actually suggested that I shop Ebay for a Series 3 HD Tivo that was going for around $40 and that I would be able to transfer my incredible $6.95 rate over to that unit. The Series 2 Tivo with lifetime unfortunately won’t transfer.

Lastly, I have been playing around with the various streaming services. My favorites are the free Amazon Prime service when you subscribe to Amazon prime for $79 a year. I also have enjoyed the selection and parental control options with Netflix.

In summary, my upfront costs have been:
$55 for Antenna
$120 for 2 – Series 3 HD Tivos ($40 + $20 shipping each)
$50 for Roku 2 XS
$80 for Roku 2 XS

My ongoing monthly costs will be:
$7.99 for Netflix
$6.95 for Series 3 TIVO
$9.95 for second series 3 TIVO

This comes out to an ongoing savings of $72 a month or $864 a year. I’m still able to get all the normal channels – ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, WB, and PBS in clear, crisp HD.

clear, crisp HD for free

Most of the TV series are on Netflix or Amazon Prime though a little delayed. Luckily my favorite NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys, are usually on nationally on the normal channels. If I start to miss the NBA too much, I can buy the NBA League pass through the Roku for $75 a year. Overall I’m glad that I finally dumped DirecTV and freed up some more cash for traveling. If you’re sick of paying so much for cable each month, you can cut the cable too!

The Terminal movie in real life – stranded passenger living in airport for last two months

Posted on: January 31st, 2013 by: Jason

For anyone familiar with the movie Terminal, Tom Hanks plays a stranded passenger who is caught in limbo and is forced to live in the airport as he doesn’t have the required papers to leave.

There’s a modern day example of this going on right now. Spaniard Rodrigo Ben-Azul flew to Chile to visit with family in order to settle a dispute. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in settling his dispute and his visa to stay in Chile had run out. He therefore returned to the Santiago airport but without any money to purchase a ticket home nor any money to eat with. He has been waiting for his family in Spain to send money so that he can return home.

He has spent the last eight weeks returning carts for money and picking food out of trash bins to survive.

If anyone is flying through Santiago – try and find Rodrigo and help him out!

Purchasing travel gear on a budget

Posted on: January 29th, 2013 by: Jason

A lot of people who have discovered our hobby of collecting miles and points finally get to take their first vacation as a reward for participating in all of the promos, signing up for credit cards for the signup bonuses, and directing their spending to maximize the most points and miles on those cards.

While gathering the points and miles is certainly the major part of getting started – there is also a lot of travel gear that can help make the journey more enjoyable as well.

If I wanted to spend under $1300 all in, what would I purchase as a bargain hunter to still travel in comfort?

Travel bag
The Checkpoint Flyer is my absolute favorite travel bag with the compactness of the bag and how cool it looks. Going through most security is a breeze without having to take my laptop out. There are also plenty of pockets to store everything you would possible take with you.

Price: $220

Electronics

Electronics – I’m a huge iPod geek and I need a ton of storage for all of my albums and podcasts. I have over 60 GB of music files so an iPod touch isn’t going to do it for me. I’m going to go for the classic iPod to handle all of this and stick with the factory earbuds to save a few bucks.

Price – $244 ordered through Macmall.com to save on sales tax.

Laptop
Even though I’m an Apple guy since the Apple ][ – to save some money, I’m going to purchase a Dell laptop. I’ve used a Dell as my work laptop for a while and it works just fine. I like a big screen on my laptops for watching movies when the Video on Demand system videos aren’t interesting. For software, I’m going to purchase Microsoft Office Home 2013

Price – $640 ordered through Dell.com

Luggage
I know most people prefer to find something small enough to carry on with them. However, I prefer just to check a big bag that I can stuff all of my stuff into. To save some more money, I perused the clearance section of the Samsonite online store, and found a 25 inch upright for $117.

To keep all of my stuff safe and in one place – I would buy the LL Bean Traveler Ticket Organizer. With a zipper all the way around and a wrist strap, it keeps all of your valuable documents safe. Inside there are multiple credit card slots along with several zipper pouches.

Price – $25.00

Lastly, to carry inside my suit case – a personal organizer to keep all my toiletries neat and zipped up. With the heavy duty hook, you can easily hang it up in any hotel bathroom where everything will be neatly organized.

Price $40

Total money spent: $1,246

I felt like I have all my bases covered with a laptop, bag, electronics, suitcase, and organizers.

How would you spend $1300?

My favorite travel blogs of 2012

Posted on: January 1st, 2013 by: Jason

As the year comes to a close and we all survived the end of the world – lots of “best of” lists are coming out. I thought I would share what I feel like were the five best travel blogs of 2012. The criteria of my list was blogs that made me want to come back over and over with interesting, unique, and / or funny content. In no particular order – here were my five favorite travel blogs of 2012.

Ben / One Mile at a Time

Ben has a talent for drawing his readers into every detail of his life including where he should move and inviting people to dinner with him and his favorite flight attendant.

He traveled an incredible amount in 2012 – just check out his gaudy trip index list and see how much it has grown over the years. He is a great and entertaining writer that kept me coming back often.

Gary Leff / View from the Wing

With an amazing amount of posts through the year, Gary makes my list of best travel blogs. Whenever I see one of his posts appear on Twitter, I rush to read it as it’s always informative. His ability to take travel news and give a thorough analysis is unparalleled. Gary is the first travel blog that I ever read back in 2004.

I still don’t understand how he finds the time for all these points even after reading his post about time management.

If there’s one thing that Gary isn’t afraid of – it’s expressing his opinion whether it’s taking Chris Elliott to task or criticizing the TSA. He broke news of so many travel deals last year that I almost hated to ever be away from my computer for fear of losing out.

Matt / Nomadic Matt

Matt quit his job and started traveling around the world in 2004. If most people are used to living in luxury while traveling – Matt takes the opposite view, that it’s best to live and eat the locals on the cheap.

He has created some pretty exhaustive travel guides with tips and tricks of how to get the most out of your vacation destination.

Some of my favorite posts from him this year was his post on a horror situation in a hostel and how he survived in Stockholm for 5 days on only $100.

He definitely takes a different angle on travel and therefore made my best travel blog list.

Daraius and Emily / Million Mile Secrets

The on again / off again love / hate relationship by his readers made Million Mile Secrets part of my top five for the year. I love that Darius didn’t moderate any comments even when it got pretty heated about him supposedly “killing deals”. Starting in 2011, Million Mile Secrets has carved out a space in the crowded blogosphere with unique takes.

One of my favorite posts was Earning Miles with Money Order.

Greg / Frequent Miler

Greg lost his job in March and started blogging full time. We were all the benefactors of that. Greg introduced everyone to the Vanilla cards that spawned thousands of people stalking Office Depot for them. He also wrote about the Bluebird card. Overall he created a blog that interested me and came up with very unique ideas on how to accumulate points.

While there are countless other blogs out there, these five above were my personal favorites. I’m sure you have others as well – which blogs do you frequently visit?

Here’s to a great 2013 in our hobby!

Why I cancelled the American Express Starwood card

Posted on: December 21st, 2012 by: Jason

I’ve had the Starwood Card for five years. I’ve paid the annual fee each year. I even kept the card when the annual fee went from $45 to $65 due to promotions like Small Business Saturday where with all of our cards we got $125 in goodies for free each year. There are also promotions with Twitter and Facebook where you can get $10 off $10 from a small business or through Foursquare or $20 off $200 from Best Buy. So $125-$65 = $60 profit right + all these promotions? No brainer to keep it?

I’ve decided however to cancel it because $65 for an annual fee is money that I could be using elsewhere.

Lucky at One Mile at a Time writes about how he spends $1000 in annual fees for his credit cards and all the benefits he gains from those cards. I was in the same boat several years ago paying hundreds of dollars in annual fees for benefits. I had a Marriott card, several American Express cards, and other cards for the benefits. I don’t begrudge him at all.

I’m slowly heading the opposite direction. I just downgraded my American Express Hilton Surpass card to the free version of the card so that I can still participate in Small Business Saturday. I hit $40,000 in annual spend on the Surpass back in 2009 and it gave me Hilton Diamond status for several years which was very useful on our trip to the Maldives. This was in the glory days of dollar coins and it was easy to hit that annual spend.

I’ve had the Platinum Delta American Express card since 2001. Living in a Delta hub, I have been justifying that annual fee for the “free” companion ticket voucher and the ability to earn 20,000 MQMs on Delta each year for a $50,000 spend. I just hit the $50,000 spend a week ago and was able to keep my Gold status with Delta. But I’m frankly getting a little tired of $5000+ credit card bills in my mailbox each month. I put all of our day to day spending on there and pay it off in full each month and never carry a balance and am using Amazon Payments as much as possible as well. But I still feel like we’re overspending in pursuit of hitting a threshold to get some MQMs and not gaining any traction. I’m seriously contemplating ditching the American Express card as well to save on that annual fee and go to simply cash based.

I’m not ready to give up credit card churning overall. Last year I was able to pick up 80,000 Priority Club points for 1 transaction with no first year annual fee. The offers coming out are still pretty tempting. I was even able to refinance my house even with all the heavy churning.

But as I contemplated in the past, I don’t feel like putting all of my spending on my credit card is a good long term financial plan and that’s why I decided to cancel the Starwood American Express card. So take notice Platinum Delta American Express card – I’m putting you on notice with your $150 annual fee. I’m going to be carefully watching you and you may be getting the boot out of my wallet very soon, even if it means getting lower status with Delta.

How to save money shopping on EBay

Posted on: December 6th, 2012 by: Jason

One of the parts of collecting miles and points that appeals to me is the notion that by doing the extra work, you’re saving money. I would never pay to go to the Maldives, but by accumulating enough points and miles – I am willing to take this exotic trip.

The same philosophy rules the rest of my life in pretty much all facets. I’m always hunting for ways to save money and get value by paying less for items. Today I’m going to share with you how I personally shop on EBay that has been quite lucrative in the past. I’ve bought and sold on Ebay for 12 years. I’ve sold everything from car tires, telephone mainframes, to Ligretto card sets from Germany. I have also purchased a far amount of items as well and have found a method pick up great items at cheap prices.

Step 1: Determine what you want and what you’re willing to pay This may seem like common sense – but if you know what you want to buy and how much you’re willing to pay ahead of time, you won’t get caught in a last minute bidding war for something. Unless it’s a one of a kind unique item that you’ll never see again, chances are it’s going to pop up again.

Step 2: Get creative on how to find the item. Let’s take an example if you’re looking for a Dirk Nowitzki jersey. By doing a simple search on Ebay, we get 310 items with Dirk Nowitzki jersey in the auction.

Now normally you would just scroll through and find a particular item you like and start bidding on. But what about if instead you tried to find items that no one is going to find? In this example, do you know how many people can’t spell Nowitzki? By using the website fatfingers.com – we can find auctions from people that misspelled them and therefore there will be less people bidding on them.

At Fatfingers, you type in the item that you’re looking for it and it will search for spelling variations of that. In this case, we’re going to type in Dirk Nowitzki and hit enter. It searches for Dirk Mowitzki,Dirk Niwitzki,Dirk Nowitski, etc. and we find 70 auction from people that can’t spell Dirk Nowitzki.

The auctions that we want to concentrate on are “Auctions” and not “Buy it Now Auctions“. The reason is: people who are selling via buy it now auctions have already set a high price for what they think the item is worth and therefore there is no opportunity to get a cheap deal.

We can now save this search and have Ebay send us an automated email each hour, day, week – whatever we chose to send us auctions with these misspellings. To save a search, click on the “Save Search” hyperlink to the right of the search results. I have several daily searches running for specific items I’m looking to get a bargain on. As an example, people misspell the name of the most popular basketball player of all time: Michael Jordan. Here are 519 auctions for Micheal Jordan.

Let’s identify an auction that would be interesting – in our case, here’s an auction for a Dallas Mavericks Adidas jersey for Dirk Nowtiski.

This is a perfect candidate with an item we want, a misspelled name and a low starting bid. Traditional logic would be to place your bid now and come back right before the end of the auction to bid some more. This isn’t going to save us any money and certainly not any time.

Step 3: Use automated bidding
Let’s rely on some automation to help us grab this item at the last second. I’ve always used a pay service called “Esnipe“. The thought behind ESnipe is they wait until the last second and place your final bid.

Simply create an esnipe account which will require you to put in your ebay username and password since they are bidding on your behalf. Next, you’ll enter in the item number of the item you wish to bid on.

Esnipe will pull up the item information and here is where you will determine how much to bid for. What is the maximum you’re willing to pay for this item? I’m willing to pay $40. Therefore, I would put in a bid of $40.78 for this item. Why not an even number like $40? Most people place bids in even numbers so by adding a couple of extra random cents, you would beat someone else that bid $40 even. Enter in your maximum bid. The “checkup” box is how many minutes prior to the auction end would an automated email will be sent to you letting you know where the auctions stand. The buffer is how many seconds prior the auction end should esnipe place your bid. I always use the default 6 seconds so another bidder won’t have time to bid higher.

At this point, I’m unconcerned if this item sells for more than $40.78 as this is the highest I wanted to pay for this item. If I get outbid, I’ll just keep looking for another item that’s interesting and do the same method.

As mentioned above, Esnipe is a pay service, but the fees are nominal. I’ve only purchased bid points 3 times over 7 years.

Some other quick tips to remember:

1) always check a seller’s feedback prior to bidding to make sure they’re reputable
2) always pay with Paypal with a Visa / MC. This allows you to have some chargeback ability should things go south. The chargeback ability with American Express is pretty shaky with them (as least since the last time I checked).
3) always read all the way through the auction for descriptions about condition of the item.
4) avoid international sellers. Being US based, I personally only buy from US sellers.

I hope the above method will be helpful for you to save money shopping on Ebay. I’ve purchased hundreds of items using this method – there are some real bargains to be had out there.

Replacing $1 bills with $1 coins

Posted on: November 28th, 2012 by: Jason

The Wall Street Journal had an article this morning about replacing $1 bills with $1 coins. The Government Accountability Office (ironic name) is recommending that the $1 bill be phased out in favor of longer lasting $1 coins.

A quote from the article:

Last year, the U.S. Treasury curtailed production of dollar coins after finding that more than 40% had been returned to the government unwanted. At the time, government vaults held 1.4 billion such coins–enough to meet demand for a decade.

My personal experience with the dollar coins was a reluctance by merchants to take them. It is not surprising that 40% were returned especially considering how many people were taking them directly back to the bank for deposit.

Would the US Mint restart their campaign to reintroduce dollar coins into circulation? Probably not, especially with free shipping. But for frequent fliers, a return to the $1 coin wouldn’t be a bad thing as we have a financial motivation to introduce coins into circulation.

If you wish, you can vote in the Wall Street Journal’s poll for Yes you are in favor or No you are not. Currently 60% of people are in favor of $1 coins in their poll.

American Airlines agent was on no fly list

Posted on: November 14th, 2012 by: Jason

The headline is as bizarre as the headlines from the newspaper Weekly World News that used to be there as you check out of the grocery store. “60 year smoker dies choking on nicotine gum” or “Cannibal wins baby back rib contest by using real baby back ribs”

Luis Montano, who worked as a gate agent and baggage handler for thirteen years for American Airlines, suddenly found himself included on the do not fly list in August. His boss sent him home after the revelation.

Luis tried for weeks unsuccessfully to find out information from TSA and Homeland Security as to why his name was on the list. Only after being contacted by NBC6 in Miami did the Homeland Security clear him from the list.

A business colleague of mine always has trouble whenever he tries to fly. Someone with the exact same name as him is on the do not fly list. Every time he goes to check in for a flight, the agent gets an alarmed look on their face and excuses themselves to make a call away from my colleague. After 15-20 minutes they return and apologize for the delay and explain that his name appeared on the do not fly list.

Luis is still waiting to have his security clearance reinstated by American Airlines and has not been able to return to work.

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