From Nomadic Matt – “Don’t Have (Travel) Regrets

I saw and shared this on my google reader, but for those who don’t use google reader, I wanted to get this link out there and share it. Matt talks about his regret of not studying abroad in college. One of the reasons he cites is fear of “missing” things going on at home. Years later he still regrets not spending a semester abroad in another country, even though he has been traveling almost non-stop since 2006! He comes to the conclusion that when you return home from your time abroad that things pick up right where you left off.

One of the other things Matt indirectly brings up is the idea of having regrets. I think the quote by Mark Twain sums it up best for me:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Don’t wait until later to do something you want to do. Make your best efforts to pursue those goals now.

I know several people going back to school right now. I hope that they consider spending a semester abroad as part of their graduate studies.

Don’t Have (Travel) Regrets | Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site.

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China Trip Update 2 – Booking my Hostels and choosing my seats on the Northwest Airlines

My previous update on my trip to China discussed why I wanted to go to China and receiving my Chinese visa.Now that it has been a few weeks I wanted to provide an update on my activities to prepare for the trip. So far to date, I’ve done some research into sites to visit, but I also wanted to take care of a couple logistical details including booking hostels and choosing my airline seats.

Booking my hostels…For the truly adventurous, some might advise you to wait until you get to China to find accommodations, however, I’m a realist. Maybe if I was staying in China for 6 weeks or longer would I do something like that, but I am only there for two short weeks. I don’t want to waste any of my time while I am in China finding a place to stay.

As a side note, I also considered couch surfing, but I decided that this trip was not the right time to do that. I may just try to meet up with a few couch surfer hosts in their city though. Probably the next time I go to China, I will try couch surfing out as I think it would be an awesome experience.

In my past trips to New Zealand and India, I have used Hostelworld.com to read reviews and book hostels. Unfortunately, Hostelworld charges a booking fee. They probably charge this booking fee to recoup the costs of running their site and while that’s understandable, I’d prefer not to pay a booking fee which was why I was excited when I found a new hostel site called Hostelbooker.com. Hostelbooker has pretty much the same line up of hostels as Hostelworld. There may have been one or two different hostels listed on Hostelworld, but there wasn’t enough of a difference to make me think twice about using Hostelbooker. The main savings I saw was the fact there was not a $2.00 booking fee. This may seem a bit cheap to haggle over a booking fee, but I tend to think most people would prefer knowing a site that doesn’t charge such a fee.

I read many reviews of hostels in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian covering things like safety, cleanliness, service, and fun at the hostel. I am pretty easy going myself and probably could not have made a mistake with picking any of the hostels listed. Here are the hostels I selected:

Shanghai
Shanghai Blue Mountain Youth Hostel
Dates: August 30, 2009 – September 3, 2009

(September 3, 2009 – I will catch a night train to Xi’an that arrives on September 4, 2009)

Xi’an
Xiangzimen International Youth Hostel
Dates: September 4, 2009 – September 5, 2009

(September 5, 2009 – I will catch a night train to Beijing that arrives on September 6, 2009)

Beijing
Haina Hostel
Dates: September 6, 2009 – September 11, 2009

(September 6, 2009 – I will catch a night train to Shanghai that arrives on September 12, 2009)

Shanghai
Le Tour Shanghai Youth Hostel
Dates: September 12 – September 13, 2009

September 13 – Head home!

Certainly, if you have any comments about these hostels (hopefully I did not go wrong) or you will be these hostels yourself, feel free to leave a comment.

Choosing my airline seat…Usually, when you choose a seat on an international flight, you are dreading that economy seat. I’m actually very excited to be flying in business class on a Northwest Airlines 747 jet. While I’ve flown on a 747 jet before, this will be my first time in business class. Before everyone thinks I have a ton of $$$ and can actually afford a business class seat, I used frequent flyer miles to obtain this seat. I plan on enjoying and relaxing on my flights to and from China. In order to aid in my seat selection in the business class cabin, I consulted threads in flyertalk’s Northwest Worldperks forum. I eventually went with exit rows on the upper deck of the 747. Needless to say, I’m excited to be finally trying the 747 upper deck. This could be my only chance as many airlines are retiring these jumbo jets because of their operating costs. Let me know if you are on a DTW-PVG flight on Aug 29. If so, we can hang out at the DTW airport. Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve experienced business class service on a NWA 747.

As the day of the departure gets closer, I am definitely getting more excited for the trip. I have already started making a list to pack even though I will only be gone for 2 weeks. In future trip updates, I’ll discuss some of the activities that I have planned.

The Idiots that run Delta

I was talking with a friend today. He is headed over to Nairobi, Kenya and had his flights booked on Delta. Recently, Delta had to cancel their Atlanta to Nairobi flight because they were not granted permission by the U.S. government to operate it. This forced Delta to rebook passengers via other cities like Amsterdam or London-Heathrow.

My friend logs into his account and see that his flight had been changed. He was actually kind of expecting it due to a link I sent him a few days ago stating the cancellation of the Nairobi flight. What he was not expecting was to be re-routed via Brussels!! Delta in its “wisdom” decided it would be great to re-route him ORD – ATL – BRU (Brussels) – BJM (in Burundi) – NBO! This absolutely boggled both my friend’s and my minds. To give a little background, there are standard protocols airlines typically follow when re-routing passengers including:

1. Re-route through a major hub in the region.
2. Re-route on partner airlines
3. Take the most direct routing

Delta missed the mark on all three of these items. First, Brussels is not a major hub for Delta or the Skyteam Alliance, which Delta is a member of. Second, by re-routing through Brussels, my friend was being booked on Brussels Airways, an airline that is not a partner of Delta. Third and probably the most important, ORD-ATL-BRU-BJM-NBO was not the most direct routing. A more direct routing would be ORD-AMS-NBO. I am not sure if this points to a large problem with Delta’s IT systems because you’d think the computer would be smart enough to book through your major hubs, choose appropriate airlines, and use the most direct routing if seats are available. Of course, when I found this out, I immediately said “what the hell” and told him he would have to call Delta/NWA.

Now as a side note, one of the primary reasons my friend booked the flight originally was to obtain 10,000 bonus miles for flying through Africa on Delta’s new route. Unfortunately, Delta wasn’t granted permission to operate the Nairobi route. So when my friend called in to get the proper re-routing, he asked for his promotion miles as well. Of course, NWA said since the route was no longer valid that the promotion didn’t apply and that the offer on their website had been updated to reflect this.

Turns out this wasn’t as accurate as NWA said it was. If you go here, you will notice the qualifying routes have been updated. But if you look in the terms and conditions, you will notice under rule number 2:

“Qualifying travel must be after registration and by August 31, 2009. Your itinerary must include travel on the Northwest Airlines or Delta Air Lines operated flights (Los Angeles – Sydney, Los Angeles – Sao Paulo, or Atlanta – Nairobi). Travel must be on a paid published fare. Bonus Miles will only be awarded for travel that includes one of the specified nonstop flights. One-way travel will qualify for half the Bonus Miles for the specific fare class. Routes can not be combined. A maximum of 15,000 Bonus Miles will be credited for each roundtrip ticket purchased and flown during the promotional period.

* 15,000 Bonus Miles will be awarded after roundtrip travel in NW BusinessElite (J/C/Z), DL Business Elite (J/C/D/S/I) class.
* 10,000 Bonus Miles will be awarded after roundtrip travel in NW Coach (Y/B/M/H/Q/V/L/T/K), DL Economy (Y/B/M/H/Q/K/L/U/T) class.”

The things that make you go “Hmmmm”. Looks like NWA forgot to update their terms and conditions because Atlanta – Nairobi is still listed! My friend has a screen shot of this. I am going to help him write a letter to NWA to get those bonus miles. Plus I think that he should get some form of compensation for having to spend time calling in for a simple re-routing that should have been done correctly in the first place.

I’ve said in the prior posts that I am burning all of my NWA/Delta miles. When NWA was a stand alone company, it had one of the best IT systems in the industry. With its merger with Delta, I think that competitive advantage has been lost. There are many broken things on NWA and Delta’s websites. Again, a situation like this just helps validate my reasons to burn the rest of my NWA/Delta miles.

Developing a secondary strategy for Credit Card Rewards Points

In previous posts about credit rewards strategies, I’ve talked about how to develop a rewards strategy, discussed why I use the Starwoods American Express and Schwab Visa as my primary cards, and talked a little bit about how I’ve earned extra SPG points buyingcoins from the U.S. Mint. Now it’s time to talk about secondary strategies for earning rewards points.

So you understand your goals and spend profile and you’ve picked a card that matches these two things, but you are thinking, “There are so many rewards programs”, you begin to wonder if you can take advantage of a few more programs. The answer is a resounding Yes! Let’s talk about secondary strategies for a minute. The way I view secondary rewards programs where it can either help contribute to an overall goal such as travel or you obtain one time bonus for things like gift cards or cash back. In other words, the credit cards that are part of your secondary strategy should include those cards with sign up bonuses. Let’s discuss a couple of examples.

I recently signed up for the American Express Rewards Plus Gold card and the Business Gold Delta Skymiles card. Both of these cards had sign up bonuses if I spend a certain amount of $ within the first 3 months of getting the card. My intentions are to fulfill the spend requirements for the sign up bonuses by ordering coins from the U.S. Mint. This way I do not have to divert any of my real spending away from my Starwords American Express card to earn those valuable SPG points.

The specific bonuses offered by the two American express cards were 30,000 skymiles and 15,000 membership rewards points. Now, in prior posts, I have alluded to the fact I am in the process of dumping all my NWA/Delta frequent flyer miles due to the massive devaluing of the program. These 30,000 miles will help me get close to having a 120,000 remaining miles to use on award travel. If I am lucky and search diligently enough, I will be able to find a perk saver business class award ticket to Asia.

In regards to the gold card and the reason for getting that, I currently have about 135,000 membership rewards points. Amex membership rewards points are similar to SPG points in that they can be converted to miles in frequent flyer programs. Additionally, if I so choose, I could convert the points to SPG points at a 3 Amex points to 1 SPG point redemption ratio. So with these 15,000 membership rewards points, I have the possibility of another 5,000 SPG points. I’m still in the process of determining if a conversion is the right way to go on this. I’ve also read that converting to Air Canda miles is another step in the right direction because of their generous award ticket policies of 2 stop-overs with one going across the Atlantic Ocean and the other going in the direction of the Pacific Ocean. My decision on which program to convert to will depend on how many SPG points I have at the end when I am trying to book my round-the-world trip and how I decide to book the travel (a bunch of one way award flights or one massive ticket).

If you can not tell, my primary goal for rewards points is travel. These two cards help me towards that goal even though after I fulfill the spend requirements for the bonus points, I will not use them again. In fact, I will probably cancel the Delta Gold Card. Additionally, I will my business Amex gold card. The reason I hold on to an Amex gold card is because I want to keep the membership rewards points and not have to spend them. So on a yearly basis, I find another Amex gold card with a sign up bonus and free annual fee the first year and I can continue to keep my membership rewards points.

Your primary goal may be cash back or you may come across an offer for an amazon giftcard or just a random $250 cashback that may have nothing to do with your primary goal at all! Maybe you have planned a big purchase at Amazon.com and could use that amazon giftcard or cashback. My suggestion is do not shy away from those opportunities. I recently applied for a chase sapphire preferred card. The bonus points being offered was 25,000 after the first purchase. I don’t even have any ties to any chase reward program, but I figured I could make use of those 25,000 points some how! This is what I mean by take advantage the opportunities. Of course if Chase approves me, I will get the bonus points, figure out the best use for them and close the card 3-11 months later. You can do a similar thing with Citi thank you points – apply for those cards that offer thank you point bonuses, cancel them in 3-6 months, apply for a different card with a thank you point bonus, and continue this process. I have even read of people applying for the same card a year or so later and getting the sign up bonus again!

Now, I will add a couple of caveats here. I caution you against applying for a large number of cards if you’re looking to get approved for a loan in the near future. Also, make sure you understand the terms for getting bonus points and if there are any annual fees involved. Typically, it is best to look for cards that are at least fee free the first year. Additionally, you do a need a decent credit score of 720+ to fully execute this strategy. These are just a couple of additional points to keep in mind.

There are many rewards points programs and credit card offers out there. Developing a secondary strategy that is geared towards your primary goal can help you realize your goal even quicker. Additionally, if you find one of those really good offers like $250 cash back or a $250 giftcard, jump on it! Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the offer helps you towards your primary goal or not if it is really good!

Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments for your primary and secondary rewards earning strategies.

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.

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.