Biking in Des Moines, Iowa and Minneapolis,MN over Memorial Day

Biking in Des Moines

I have a goal of biking 1200-1500 miles this summer. Over the long holiday weekend, I was able to add 50 more miles to my total.

Biking in Des Moines

Although I knew I would be busy being in a friend’s wedding in Iowa, I decided to pack the 7.5fx with me to do some biking. I managed to ride about 30 miles while attending all the wedding activities. My main route took me from the west side of Urbandale to just past Gray’s Lake. I was able to see the baseball stadium and state capitol building before I decided I should turn around.

View of Downtown Des Moines
View of Downtown Des Moines
Downtown Des Moines - Baseball Stadium and Capitol Building
Downtown Des Moines - Baseball Stadium and Capitol Building

Biking in Minneapolis

I returned to Minneapolis on Sunday and took things easy Sunday night. On Monday, I ran 3 miles and went for a bike ride. For the route, I decided to ride around Lake Harriet, Calhoun, Isles, and Nokomis. In all it was about 22 miles. I was able to get some good views of downtown and enjoyed doing some plane spotting by Nokomis.

View of Downtown Minneapolis
View of Downtown Minneapolis
Plane spotting by Lake Nokomis
Plane spotting by Lake Nokomis
Plane getting ready to land seen from Lake Nokomis
Plane getting ready to land seen from Lake Nokomis

China Trip Update – my visa is here!

I have my Passport back.
I have my Passport back.

About two weeks ago, I sent my passport to Washington DC to obtain a Chinese visa. On Thursday, I was excited to receive my passport back with a brand new Chinese visa! I quickly flipped to the visa pages in my passport to check out what a Chinese visa looks like….

Chinese Visa
Chinese Visa

Since I’ve received my visa, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to spend some time talking about why China is my next destination.

Ever since I started traveling to different countries, I have always wanted to visit China. I think it has something to do with seeing things that are hundreds and thousands of years old mixed in with modern buildings and high tech things like high speed rail or the world’s largest man made dam. Last year when China hosted the Olympics and seeing the amazing structures and shows put on by Chinese, I knew I had to go to China to see and experience the sites, sounds, and culture of the Chinese. At the end of August, I will be in China for two weeks.

As I started to research what things I wanted to do in China, I realized that two weeks was not nearly enough time to see a country as large as China. Part of the decision of where to go and what to see was easy. I am flying in and out of Shanghai so it made a lot sense to spend some time in the city. I also definitely wanted to see the Great Wall of China so that made a trip to Beijing the next part of my trip. Finally, after seeing the images of the Terra Cotta Warriors during the Olympics, I had an interest in checking that out. This led me to add the city of Xi’an to my itinerary.

So far my itinerary looks something like this:

Shanghai – 6 days
Xi’an – 2 days
Beijing – 6 days

I am still researching everything there is to do in Beijing and Shanghai. I know there is the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing. I am still reading up on Shanghai and am not as familiar with the things to see and do there. I do have a couple guide books that I am going to use to give me an idea of what there is to do. I won’t necessarily do all the suggestions and will maintain flexibility to do other things once I am on ground in China.

The things I am most looking forward to are (in no particular order)

1. Train Travel in China
2. Getting to try different foods
3. Practicing my Mandarin Chinese!
4. Experiencing the friendly Chinese culture
5. Standing on the Great Wall of China
6. Seeing the Terra Cotta Army
7. Taking lots of photos

If you’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai, or Xi’an and have a suggestion, please feel free to leave a comment. I will provide a couple more updates before I leave in August.

Upgrading my Trek 7.5 FX…

My new bike shoes
My new bike shoes

After two weeks of owning my beloved 7.5 fx, I decided to upgrade a few of the components. As you can see from the photos this included the pedals and adding handle bar extenders. I also added a saddle pack which could hold a spare inner tube and some gloves which will keep my hands warm on those cooler days. Included in the pedal upgrade was also obtaining a pair of biking shoes that clip into the pedals. I don’t have the specific links but upgrading the pedals to a clip in design will improve efficiency by 20-25%.

Pedal Upgrade
Pedal Upgrade

I took the bike out for a quick 17 mile spin to test out my upgrades. I admit it took a little bit to get used to clipping in and out of the pedals. I am still getting used to clipping in quickly. Also, during one of my stops, I somewhat forgot I was clipped in and just about fell over in the bike. I was lucky in that as I was falling over I was able to somehow clip out and catch myself. I guess this will just take some practice.

I am hoping with the exception of one or two additional pieces of bike clothing that I am done upgrading for awhile. I think I’ve gotten the upgrades that make the most sense for right now. I do plan on upgrading the bike computer I have at the end of the summer. I’m not decided on specifics regarding that upgrade, but am leaning towards something with GPS.

I am going to set my distance goal to ride 1500 miles by the end of September. So far I have done about 200 miles. It’d be great if I hit 2000 miles but I think 1500 is a good goal to shoot for right now. If you are you have route suggestions or just want to sound off about your bike, feel free to leave a comment. I am still enjoying my trek 7.5 fx.

Bike with handle bar upgrade
Bike with handle bar upgrade

Why I use the Starwoods Amex and Schwab Visa Cards as my primary credits cards

SPG Amexschwab visa

I have been asked the question many times, “What is the best card to use?”. Every time this question is asked of me by one of my friends I end up giving the standard answer…”It depends.” This usually leads to a longer discussion about goals and what they want out of their rewards. In my post regarding developing a rewards strategy, I tried to lay out the steps a person should consider when choosing their credit card(s). Tonite, I want to share with you what cards I use and more importantly WHY I use them.

Goals and Old Strategy…
Before I talk about the specific cards in my wallet, I think its important to understand my goals. My goal for my credit card rewards is to get a round the world airline award ticket in business class. This is a very specific goal that points me in the direction of cards that offer programs that turn points into air miles in a variety of frequent flyer programs. This is also helped me develop a specific strategy of targeting airline, hotel, and American Express point programs. Originally, I wanted to earn as many frequent flyer miles as possible. This meant that I would fly the same airline, sign up for the credit cards with bonus miles, and earn American Express and hotel points as a secondary strategy as a way of getting more air miles. The problem was that I focused on a specific airline instead of focusing on a program that was flexible and gave me options in choosing the best airline miles. It was only after I realized that the airline programs were being devalued that I knew I would have to change things up. What I wish I would have realized was the flexibility of the SPG starpoint.

What I carry currently and how it helps me….
In my wallet, I carry two credit cards that I consider to be among the best for maximizing my rewards – the Starwoods Preferred Guest (SPG) American Express Card and the Schwab Invest First Visa Card .

The SPG amex card allows you to earn 1 point per dollar spent. There is a 10,000 point sign up bonus. You can redeem SPG points for gift cards, buy flights with points, hotel stays, or you can transfer points to miles in most major (over 30) frequent flyer programs. It is these last two things that I listed that I want to discuss further. If you’re interested redeeming for a hotel room, you can do a straight award starting at 3,000 points depending on the category hotel you choose. A much better option is to look at the cash and points redemption option. At certain Starwood properties, you can get a room for a small amount of points and a reasonable price. I’ve seen awards start at $60 a night plus a couple thousand points. Looking at the big picture, this let’s your points go further and doesn’t cost you much especially when you are talking about burning 50 – 60 thousand points at a category 4,5, or 6 hotel for a few nights or paying $60-100 a night plus 3,000 points. The cash and points deal is really good. Another fringe benefit is redeeming is if you redeem for 4 nights, you can get the 5th night free. If you wanted to use this card just for hotel points, it would be a great card to use, but I want to point you in the direction of transferring points to airline miles.

With Starwoods, if you transfer 20,000 points to participating airline programs , SPG will add another 5,000 bonus miles to the transaction. This effectively turns the SPG Amex card into a 1.25 point per dollar card if you redeem in 20,000 point increments. Some will argue that cash back cards are better. I would argue that the value of travel points is when you start talking about redeeming for premium class seats on airlines. I highly recommend that you don’t use miles or points to redeem for domestic coach seats unless you urgently need seats and can’t afford to buy the tickets.

An Example Calculation
Business Class seat on NWA/DL to Taipei, Taiwan – $7167.02
Dollars to spend using average cash back rate of 2% to purchase this ticket – $358,351
Air miles required to get a saver class award ticket – 120,000 for a round trip
Starpoints required to redeem for NWA seat – 100,000
Cost for obtaining those 100,000 SPG points – A maxmium of $100,000
Return on 100,000 starpoints for a $7,167.02 premium seat – over 7%

The above example is a worst case scenario. If you have status you are earning points are a far greater rate through bonuses when you stay with at SPG hotels. Your return % could be much greater than 7%!

One other way to quickly obtain points is to purchase them. . I usually don’t recommend this, but this will help me leap frog towards my goal quicker. I can get 20,700 points for $700 or I can run $20,000 through on the Amex card and get 20,000 points. (20,000 is the max points that may be purchased in a year) It might take awhile to run 20k in expenses and it would depend on your immediate need for points. The US Mint Strategy I talked about earlier will help you quickly run expenses through.

Pitfalls of this card….
There are some pitfalls that I have chosen to live with regarding the SPG card. First, it is an American Express. AMEX is not as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard. Second, through credit card transactions only, I get 1 point per dollar. Other cards give certain bonuses for gas and grocery purchases whereas the SPG is a straight 1 point per dollar.

How I mitigated the pitfalls
Since I realize AMEX isn’t accepted everywhere and because I have Schwab Checking, Brokerage, and Savings accounts. I decided to get the Schwab Invest First Visa card. This is a straight 2% cash back credited to the brokerage account every month. Now one of the cool things about this card is that there is no foreign transaction fees charged. So when you go overseas, you’re not stuck paying the ridiculous fee for using a credit card.

In my next credit cards post, I will talk about my secondary strategy to complement my reward programs earnings.

75 miles on the trek 7.5FX

Midtown Greenway Sign
Midtown Greenway Sign

It has been about 2 weeks since I first purchased my Trek 7.5 FX and I wanted to talk about my first long bike ride that I took with the 7.5fx on Saturday, May 16. The short story is that the bike did an amazing job getting its owner from the uptown area of Minneapolis to the end of the Gateway Trail near Stillwater, Minnesota. Needless to say, I was still very very exhausted after riding 75 miles that day.

The route that our biking group took was from the greenway trail in uptown over to St. Paul. We cut across St. Paul and eventually found the Gateway trail. This trail took us from St. Paul to North St. Paul to Maplewood to Oakgrove and eventually out near Stillwater. We were planning on biking into Stillwater, but due to time constraints, that part of the trip was nixed. Looking back it was probably good that we killed that part of the ride. Apparently the road into downtown Stillwater is pretty hilly and completely on the highway. I would describe the ride conditions as non-ideal – not only was it very windy, it was also very cold. I didn’t realize how much the conditions would affect my energy towards the end of the ride.

I started out the morning leaving my place to pick up some Cliff bars and gatorade. I was dressed in sweat pants and a sweatshirt. Right as I walked to my car, I noticed it was going to be really cold and windy. This put me in a bit of a conundrum…do I wear my running pants over the biker shorts or do I wear biker shorts and hope that the sun comes up and I warm up during the ride. I pondered this thought as I bought my cliff bars and returned to my house to get ready for the ride. In the end, I decided on a compromise – I would wear biker shorts, running shorts over the top, a long sleeve running shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt over the top. This worked out fairly well except the sweat shirt did nothing to protect me from the wind. During the ride, Erica, Matt’s fiancee, told me to pick up a wind wall – basically something that does a better job of protecting you from the wind.

I biked the 5.7 miles to Matt and Erica’s place and everyone got ready to go. My ride to the uptown area took me along Minnehaha Parkway, across 35W, up Lake Harriet and Calhoun. As a new bike owner and lacking some necessary supplies, Matt and Erica let me borrow some gloves which I am very thankful that they let me borrow. My hands were pretty cold on the ride up to their place because of the wind and air temperature. The ride would have been pretty crappy if I didn’t have my hands covered.

We headed up to the greenway, a bike trail that goes through many different parts of Minneapolis. All of sudden Erica said “Stop” and needed to check her tires out. After examining her back tire, she determined her tube had a hole in it and needed to be changed out. After spending some time trying to figure out how to change the tube ourselves, it was determined the best course of action would be to ride up to the nearest bike shop and get a tube changed there. Apparently the tube is pretty tricky to change on the tires that Erica uses. The guy at the bike shop showed Matt how to change it and told him how he wished he was biking to Stillwater instead of working. I had taken my camera with me instead of my sunglasses so this gave me an opportune time to snap some photos…

One Bike Temporarily Out of Commission
One Bike Temporarily Out of Commission
A view from the Minneapolis Greenway Trail
A view from the Minneapolis Greenway Trail

After the tube was changed, we were back in business. We headed towards St. Paul. The ride down Summit Ave was nice, easy, and down hill. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how down hill it really was which would play a factor in the return journey (along with the wind). I only wish I was better at taking pictures while riding. (Hopefully I can get better at this and provide more pictures). After a bit of biking through St. Paul, we reached the Gateway trail. I was able to snap another picture as we hit a stop light on a minor detour for construction on the trail….

Picture of part of the Gateway Trail
Picture of part of the Gateway Trail

As we continued to stay on the trail and go through parts of North St. Paul, Maplewood, and Oakgrove, I took in the change of scenery in the neighborhoods and people. There weren’t that many people on the trail either biking or walking. We did see a couple people riding horses as we moved further outside of St. Paul on the trail. Another notable siting was the group of juveniles that were being escorted along the trail. I am not sure if they were out for community service or exercise, but this was definitely a surprising group of people to see along the trail. This also sparked an interesting discussion about Erica’s experience mentoring an at risk student. We made a couple of stops for the restroom and water breaks along to the end of the trail just outside Stillwater. Erica and Matt were a bit concerned that I wasn’t drinking enough water. Looking back and after getting tips from my cousin, who lives and breathes bikes, I should have probably been taking in more liquids. We got to the end of the trail and turned around to make the return trip.

On the return trip, Matt and I were pretty hungry. Fortunately for us, there is a burger king on the way back that we stopped at to get food and water. I had chicken nuggets, fries, and a glass of water. Matt ordered a burger, fries, and some coffee. I thought this would be enough to get me back to Minneapolis. Little did I know the effort that would be required once we would hit St. Paul on the return trip. As we were leaving burger king, I asked Matt about how far we had left and he said “about 20 miles”. Little did I know that it was actually closer to 30 miles!! Thanks Matt!

As we were getting closer to the twin cities, it was nice to see familiar land marks. Seeing these land marks increased my confidence and belief that I would make it back to our starting point in uptown. During one of our stops, I was able to snap a distance picture of St. Paul….

We're getting closer to civilizaton...a distance view of St. Paul
We're getting closer to civilizaton...a distance view of St. Paul

Once we got off the Gateway trail and back on the streets of St. Paul is where the “fun” began. It was pretty much nothing but hills for the next 3-4 miles. On the way down, I didn’t even think about what it would be like to bike back up these hills. Additionally the challenge of biking in the wind and the cold made it even more difficult. The bike up Summitt Ave contains many stop lights. Everytime I made it near a stop light, I was sort of hoping that the light would turn red and let me have a little rest. This didn’t happen…every time I hit a light, it was green and I continued pedaling up hill!

We eventually made it back to uptown. Everyone was pretty tired. Erica gave me a ride home. I was exhausted and very appreciative that I wouldn’t have to bike home. I found this ride to be both fun and challenging. I also learned a few things about the bike and what upgrades to immediately consider. First, I am going to pick up pedals with clips and biking shoes. I am going to do this in the next week or two. Matt was nice enough to let me have his basket pedals, but I can see the advantages of upgrading to the pedals with clips. Second, I am going to pick up a handle bar upgrade. One of the things I noticed was how tired my arms and shoulder were after maintaining the same position on the bike for so long, it’s probably a good idea to pick up this upgrade. Third, I am going to get a saddle pack so I can carry a spare tube with me in case I have problem with an inner blowing.

One other thing I learned was how many calories I was burning and using from biking. We stopped at burger king for the quick refuel before heading back to the cities. When I got home, I drank a lot of water, ate spaghetti, and eventually I decided to order a thin crust pizza after my nap. Being a runner and knowing how much energy running can take and comparing the energy is take to bike, this surprised me a little bit. The only thing I wish I had done better was to take more pictures. I promise to get better at taking pictures from my bike as the summer progresses.

I Like Breakfast Group: Breakfast at The Strip Club in St. Paul, MN.

**** UPDATE ****
Tim, the owner of The Strip Club, reached out to me via a comment in the blog. I highly respect this fact. I think it shows Tim does care about the experiences his customers have at his restaurant. I let Tim know that I wasn’t looking for a refund or compensation and that if I return with the group or personally, I will re-review the Strip Club and note my experiences again.

**** END UPDATE ****

I recently met a group of people who enjoy breakfast as much as I do. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day and it has been argued that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Every couple of weeks, we meet up on a Sunday to go to different restaurants in the twin cities to celebrate breakfast and catch up with what is going on in people’s lives. Today, the group went to The Strip Club located in St. Paul. This was an important milestone for the group because it was the first time that the group had ventured outside of Minneapolis to try breakfast in St. Paul. Even though I have not been involved very long with the group, I get the distinct feeling that the group prefers Minneapolis and the west side of the twin cities as compared to the east side and St. Paul. This is mainly because everyone appreciates the city life of Minneapolis. I think the majority of people in the group actually live in the city of Minneapolis. Before I go on, let me just say the Strip Club is a restaurant that focuses on creating unique dishes with different types of meat, it is not an actual strip club.

Restaurant Strip Club
Restaurant Strip Club

The location of the restaurant was easy to find especially for someone who does not frequent the east side of the twin cities that much. It was located one block off the Mounds Blvd exit on I-94. There was also a view of downtown St. Paul. Because I only had my iPhone on me, I decided it would be best to walk outside the restaurant and get a picture of downtown St. Paul. Here is what it looked like from just outside the restaurant….

View of downtown St. Paul from the Strip Club
View of downtown St. Paul from the Strip Club

I arrived a little bit early to the restaurant and found the restaurant had several tables together waiting for our group of 10 to arrive. I think its always nice when the restaurant is ready for large parties especially when you call and tell them you will be having a large party. The atmosphere of the restaurant was pretty good with the music in the background and a small upstairs seating area. Our group was seated in the main area. One gripe I and many other people in our group had about the atmosphere is that it was very warm in the restaurant. This could be because our large party or having an open kitchen. It would have been nice if there was some way to open a window or get more air circulating throughout the inside.

Since I was a little early, I ordered coffee as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. The coffee was good. It didn’t taste like Starbucks or Caribou so that was a welcome change. The wait staff did a pretty good job of keeping everyone’s coffee cup filled up as we waited to order the food. I admit that I took a look at the brunch menu before I stepped foot in the building! That is how much I like breakfast. Several things caught my eye including the Logger’s Tower and Fenian French Toast. Also, since I knew we would probably be there for at least a hour, the North Coast Pranqster’s Golden Ale tap beer sounded worth trying.

The server assigned to our table was efficient and effective at taking the group’s order. A few comments about the menu versus what was posted online. The online menu mentioned an item called Apples and Oatmeal which sounded pretty good, however, the restaurant menu that we ordered from did not have this item listed. Additionally, I wanted to try the North Coast Pranqster’s Golden Ale listed online, but when I asked when beers were on tap, that was not one of them listed. I understand that the restaurant is small and tries to make dishes with fresh ingredients and offer unique beers in limited quantities, but if that is the case, instead of listing the current beer, why not put a note on the menu saying that beers will change based on availability. I really wanted to also try the pork sausage on the menu. I tried to subsitute out the ham for the pork sausage, but my server said she couldn’t do that. She could take out the ham and charge me for a side of pork sausage. I opted not to do this. I ended up ordering the Logger’s Tower which is a triple stack of pancakes, grilled ham, fried eggs, scallions, rosemary, and a side of syrup. For my beverage I ordered a pint of Red Hook IPA beer. Below is a picture of my plate of food without the syrup…

The Logger's Tower - My meal at  The Strip Club
The Logger's Tower - My meal at The Strip Club

The actual delivery of the order took a little while. This was partially due that several people in the group ordered hamburgers that needed to be thoroughly cooked and the number of people in our group. The wait time didn’t bother me or anyone else in the group too much as it gave everyone a chance to catch up. Plus by the time we were receiving our food, everyone was really hungry. Somehow I am always the last to receive my food in large groups, so I was especially please when my plate finally came out.

The Logger’s Tower was especially tasty! Even though I stayed with the grilled ham, I enjoyed it. Additionally, the pancakes were cooked perfectly. We actually spent a few minutes discussing various ways to mess up pancakes such as over or under cooking them, having too much batter, or making them too fluffy. The pancakes were made just right. The fried eggs were a nice touch to the item. I am a big fan of eggs at breakfast. What topped off of my meal was the syrup. I am not sure if it is homemade or anything, but it was really good; and was just enough to cover the plate and not leave the food soaked in syrup.

Other people at the table ordered grape fruit which was very large, a caramel roll which everyone sampled, the loaded burger, and the Scandahuvian Smoked Salmon and Potato Hash. I heard positive comments about the grape fruit, caramel roll, and the Scandahuvian Smoked Salmon and Potato Hash. However, our burger expert at the table was disappointed with the loaded burger. He was expecting more for the price. So you might want to avoid the burger for brunch.

After everyone was finished eating, is when all the fun and confusion started. The server put everyone’s order on one receipt. Most of us didn’t have cash on hand and needed to use a credit card. We made the request to have bill evenly split 10 ways. Another thing that the group noticed was that tip was already included. I understand that for large parties tips are typically added in, however, I saw two problem with this. First, the tip was at 20% and second, I saw no where on the menu that tips would automatically be added in for large parties. From the many restaurants, I have frequented the standard practice has been to print something on the menu to make your customers aware of this policy. I personally don’t like it when someone determines the amount I am going to tip. I tend to tip at least 20% when the service is good. So I just see the server short changing themselves on this one.

We all put down our cards and gave the server the instructions to split the bill evenly. 2 minutes later, the server comes back and states they don’t accept American Express. I noticed this fact when I walked into the restaurant and luckily I had a visa on me, however, another person in the group did not and had to have his bill added with another bill. This is not a major strike against The Strip Club, but it is something that was discussed at the table. For the type of establishment that it is, we somewhat expected them to take American Express cards. This was just a minor hiccup compared to the next time we saw the server.

After sometime of a delay lasting 5-10 minutes, our server came out and informed us that the maximum amount of cards that could be processed on a single receipt was 6. I have never actually heard this before. We requested that the receipt be split into at least 2 receipts so everyone’s card could be run through. This seems like a simple request. The delays in bringing the table the bill and the fact that it was very very warm in the restaurant by this point made the entire table want to leave as soon as we could.

After the server came back, I saw something on the receipt that I’ve never seen before. A line item that said “Card Charged” and a line item that said “Cash Back” . Apparently, the server choose a unique way of dividing up the bill. These two line items caused a whole bunch of confusion at the table especially since none of us are used to receiving cashback from a credit card transaction. Unfortunately, the server did not inform us the process that was used to split out the bill and we were unable to determine how it was clearly split out or who owed who money.

The final impression I received was as I was getting my cash back from the server the server made the comment – “I’m f*****”. I can relate that the server was frustrated, but this comment should not have been made in front of a customer. I think it would have been better if the server would have spent the time separating out the bills into 10 individual receipts. I am not sure why this could not have been done.

Overall, the experience at The Strip Club was mixed. I would even say more on the disappointing side. The location was decent and the restaurant seemed prepared for the group. The food was tasty especially the Logger’s Tower, but the overall experience of dealing with the bill and the temperature inside the restaurant made our group wonder if it was worth another visit. I would say if the restaurant can improve how it handles large groups it might be worth coming back again. At this time, even though the food was for the most part excellent and due to the many other excellent establishments in the twin cities, I’m unsure if I can truly recommend The Strip Club to my friends.

The nerve these guys have – Ryanair now charging for boarding passes?!?

Saw this one on UpgradeTravelBetter.com, it looks like Ryanair is now charging for the privilege of issuing a boarding pass at home. All I have to say this one is wow…what will these guys think of next…charging for the use of bathrooms in flight?…oh wait… they are already thinking about that.

If this fee sticks, this is going to really surprise me. Ryanair is based in Europe. I would think that the EU regulators and consumer adovacates will raise quite a storm about this. I understand the need for airline to generate revenue from new fees, but this is taking it to the extreme.

Chutzpah: Ryanair to charge £5 (and up) for boarding passes | Upgrade: Travel Better.

How to develop a rewards program strategy….

I have spent countless hours pondering this exact question and getting asked this question by many of my friends.  Many co-workers and friends alike are intrigued at the amount of time and “number” running that I have done to find the best cards and programs that will help me with my goals.  It is only when I start bringing up terms like “spend profile” do I get a really hard time. I hope with this post that I will be able to provide  insight on how to develop a rewards program strategy.

Understand your goals…

The first thing you have to do before you even start applying for credit cards is determining what your goals for the rewards you are trying to earn. Do you want to get cashback as your rewards? Do you want to bank frequent flyer miles or hotel points? Do you want to save points for a specific product like a big screen tv or computer? Most people choose cashback or some frequent traveller program. Most don’t try to earn points to redeem products because the redemption rates are very unfavorable and it usually easier to buy the product you want.  Be aware that each type of card has their own individual pitfalls so its best to look at the terms of the programs very closely.

Understand what you spend your money on…

After you know what you want to do with your rewards, you need to understand where you spend your money. Some credit cards give bonuses for gas or grocery purchases. It is important you understand this. I have coined the term spend profile. If you know that you spend the majority of your money towards gas and groceries, this will help you focus on cards that give more points or cashback for gas and grocery purchases.

Understand your current rewards programs…

Maybe you already focused in on a certain rewards program or you can project that you will be flying a certain airline a lot this year or you will be staying at a certain hotel chain many nights this year or maybe you already have miles or points built up with a certain rewards program. If this is the case, you may be interested in continuing to earn points in that program or taking advantage of a signup bonus to get your points to a certain balance. This will also be a factor in your decision process to determine which cards to apply for.

Have a primary and a secondary card…

Determine what your primary credit card will be. This is the card where most of your purchases will be charged to.  This will be the rewards program that you want to earn the most points in. Since there are always draw backs to rewards cards, your secondary card will be there to help reduce most of the drawbacks and can be used when certain situations are met. For example, say your primary card earns hotel points and your secondary card earns cashback, but has a feature that does not charge foreign transaction fees when you are overseas. You would use this secondary card when you travel overseas or when your primary card might not be accepted.

Next steps…

Once you understand your goals, develop your spend profile, factor in your current rewards program earnings, and determine your secondary needs, this will help focus your search on the “right” credit cards for you. These factors may not be weighted equally. It may be the case that you have 200,000 points in a certain program and you want to continue earning points with that program even though you may spend the majority of your purchases on gas and groceries. There will be compromises that you will have to make. You will have to decide which is more important to you. In my next post, I am going to discuss my specific credit card strategy and why I like the Starwoods Preferred Guest American Express card and the Schwab Invest First Visa Signature card.

The blessing and curse of student loans

I read this article on USA Today about the pressures of paying off students loans. I can certainly relate to this pressure as I have spent the majority of my extra income from the last 4 years paying off  over $50,000 in student loans years earlier than I am required. I may have made a choice to pay down those loans early, but I’d rather get rid of debt as quickly as possible.

I found a few things interesting about in this article.  First, how hard student loans are to discharge through bankruptcy. The article seemed to indicate it was easier to discharge gambling debt through bankruptcy than student loans. This doesn’t seem right to me.

The second thing I found interesting was regarding the cost of private loans. Private lenders claimed that once the law disallowed the discharge of private student loans that these loans would become cheaper. According to the article, the interest rates on private student loans have not become cheaper. I don’t know enough about the current private student loan environment, but from my own experience, as the interest rates have dropped, so to have the rates on my remaining private loans. This is probably because the interest rate on my loans are variable and tied to the market rate.

I certainly think that the government needs to take some action to give students relief from their loans especially in the current tough economic times. The banks that gave these loans out have certainly been granted billions of dollars in relief. I see no reason why students can not be granted some relief as well. The article makes an excellent point that many students can not afford to search for a job in a career related to their major because they are taking lower paying jobs to keep up with student loan payments.

The final point I’d like to make is that student loans can be both a blessing and a curse. They can help students pursue their dreams but sometimes at a fairly steep price. Looking back, I wish I had paid out of pocket for more of my college costs. Starting out with a negative net worth and mountain of debt is no fun as recent graduates are quickly coming to realize.

College graduates struggle to repay student loans – USATODAY.com.

Link of the Day: What Can Travel Teach You About The American Dream?

I saw this article on BraveNewTraveler.com. I think the concept of the “American Dream” is slowly changing for some younger people here in the States. However, for the majority of people (even I would argue the majority of young people age 22-35) the concept of owning a house, having 2.5 kids, and marrying a lawyer/doctor is still the basic idea of the “American Dream”.

My challenge to you is to think outside this concept. Think about the things you keep saying I’ll wait to do when I am retired or think about those things that you keep thinking would be “nice” to do but for some reason always get reprioritized.

Once you do this, maybe you will see your idea of the “American Dream” is not the same as what others have in mind.

What Can Travel Teach You About The American Dream?.