Month: April 2016

Why everyone should have and keep at least one hotel credit card (even if you don’t plan on using it)

Why everyone should have and keep at least one hotel credit card (even if you don’t plan on using it)

The picture above is from the InterContinental Hotel in Bora Bora, Tahiti. If you had to take a guess, how much do you think it costs to stay there for one night? $300? $500? $800? Try $1,000 (one dollar equals roughly 105  CFP Francs).

bora

What if I told you that you could stay there once a year for $49? You might think I was crazy. And I probably would have too before I started getting into the credit card game. After all, that’s cheaper than getting a private room at a hostel in Tahiti:

tahost

But unlike airline credit cards, which are rarely worth keeping after the annual fee hits following the signup bonus, most hotel credit cards are actually worth keeping and paying the annual fee on every year, given that every year often comes with a free hotel night.

IHG

In this particular case, I’m talking about the IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card, which for a $49 annual fee (waived the first year), gives you one free night every year at any IHG property in the world. On top of this, there is a signup bonus that often ranges from 60,000 to 80,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first three months (though it’s not always publicly available and may require some research to find this offer), which is good enough for two nights at a reasonably nice hotel, or one night at an extremely nice hotel. On top of that, you’re instantly granted Platinum status (the second-highest tier) as long as you have the card, which increases your chances of receiving an upgrade.

Of course, in the interest of not bankrupting IHG, it’s not as if you can get this and then use your free night at any property in the world on whatever date you want. IHG does limit the amount of free nights it allows per night per hotel, so if you want to use it at a place that regularly goes for $1,000/night, you might have to be prepared to book it almost a year in advance. That being said, hotels that don’t quite regularly go for quite as much often can be booked with less advance notice.

While the IHG credit card is the only hotel credit card that offers a free night every year at any property in the hotel chain, several other hotel credit cards offer more restricted free nights that can still come in handy.

Hyatt

While the Hyatt credit card also offers a free night every year (though it has a slightly higher annual fee of $75), this is limited only to Hyatt properties in Categories 1-4. Of course, if you’re familiar with the Hyatt brand, you know that unlike other hotel chains, it exclusively focuses on higher-end offerings. In other words, while you may not be able to stay at the absolutely nicest Hyatts in the world, you’ll still get to stay at a really nice hotel for free. Thankfully if you do want to experience one of the top tier Hyatts (select Category 7), this card usually comes with a signup bonus of two free nights at any Hyatt in the world (I recently got this card and am currently looking at using my free night at the Hyatt Andaz in Tokyo, where rooms can go for $1,000/night). It also offers Platinum status as long as you have the card.

Marriott

Like the Hyatt and IHG cards, the Marriott Rewards Premier credit card also offers a free night every year, in any Marriott property in Categories 1-5. Unlike Hyatt though, Marriott propertiets span a much wider gamut, and most hotels in Categories 1-5 in the US tend to be in suburban areas, or very cheap urban areas (though obviously in countries with a lower cost of living you’re more likely to find something in a major city). The signup bonus often runs as high as 80,000 points (usually after spending $2,000) with a $85 annual fee waived the first year, which is nice enough to redeem at any Marriott property in the world, as well as a free night certificate at any hotel in Categories 1-4. It also offers Silver status as long as you have the card.

Others

 

Unless you spend a lot of money a particular hotel chain every year, I wouldn’t recommend making a hotel card your primary card, but if that is the case for you, there are several more hotel credit cards that offer a free night every year after spending a certain amount of money in the year, like the Best Western, Choice Hotels, Hilton, and La Quinta credit cards. The Wyndham credit card will also give you almost half the amount of points needed for a free night every year with no spending threshold.

 

Have a question? Story to share? Feel free to post in the comments below or email me.

 

While I have yet to set up my site with credit card referral links that will pay me a commission if you sign up for a credit card through my links (as is often common on these sites), if you’re interested in getting on of the cards mentioned here and want me to get something for it, let me know and I’d be happy to refer you.

 

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Iceland has the best hot springs in the world

Iceland has the best hot springs in the world

Yesterday I took some time to write about the Grjótagjá hot springs cave in northern Iceland, which I felt was so amazing that it deserved its own post. Of course, there are far more hot springs in Iceland than this one.

Blue Lagoon

The most famous one by far is the Blue Lagoon, which has extensively been used in many marketing campaigns and has been written about thousands of times. Given the surfeit of information available about it, I’m not going to spend much time on it here. Rather, I’ll leave it at this:

If you have time, it’s a fun yet expensive ($40) way to relax. While it is man-made, the striking blue color of the water is natural, and forms a beautiful contrast with the black basalt rock walls. However, if you are looking for an authentic Icelandic experience, this is not it. The only Icelandic people here are the staff. And unlike most other hot springs in Iceland, the atmosphere inside the pool is loud and raucous with free-flowing alcohol, a contrast to the serenity of other hot springs. But given its proximity to Keflavik airport, it can still serve as a fun welcome to Iceland, or one last way to relax before getting on a plane. If you are planning on going, advance tickets are a must regardless of the time of year. You will almost definitely be turned away if not.

Myvatn Nature Baths (pictured above)

If you like the pretty milky blue color of the water at the Blue Lagoon but hated the feeling of being overrun by tourists, this is the place for you. Located an hour or so east of Akureyri (and very close to Grjótagjá), admission is half the price of the blue lagoon, and provides a much quieter atmosphere, with the bathers consisting mostly of Icelanders and German tourists (the Germans really leave no stone unturned when traveling).

 

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The beautiful mountain landscapes provide a great backdrop which one can look at for hours on end. On top of that, the cafeteria inside serves an unspectacular yet filling lunch for a very reasonable price (hard to find in Iceland if you want to eat something besides hot dogs). You also might see them selling something called “geyser bread”, which is bread that has been cooked in a volcano. It is extremely dense and bland. Don’t be tempted.

Secret Lagoon

Despite its proximity to the famous Golden Circle, this is rarely mentioned in conjunction with the various stops on the Golden Circle. Given its name, this is probably somewhat intentional, and I wouldn’t mind keeping it this way either.

It can be a little hard to find (especially in the winter when road conditions are less than ideal), but once you get there, you have a beautiful outdoor geothermally heated hot spring. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many pictures because there was so much steam everywhere:

IMG_20160306_173927IMG_20160306_173936Nonetheless, this is a great way to relax after a long day of driving around the Golden Circle, as you can dig your feet deep into the squishy mud below you. There is also a small boardwalk that goes around the pool where you can see mini geysers “erupting”, but I wouldn’t recommend dipping your feet in any of these, as the water is around boiling temperature.

Seljavallalaug Hot Springs

I would recommend this only for people looking for a true “off-the-beaten path” adventure. While geographically its not very far from the main Ring Road that encircles the highland, and quite close to the famous Skógafoss waterfall, it does take a little bit of (easy) hiking to get to. Thankfully, unlike Grjótagjá, Google Maps is very accurate for directions to Seljavallalaug:

selj

Depending on what kind of car you have and what time of year it is, you should be able to follow pretty far up the road (Highway 242) until you can’t go any further. From there, all you have to do is stay on the path above, and you will eventually come to it.

On one hand, it’s not much more than a concrete pool fed by the runoff of volcanically heated water. On the other hand, part of what makes it so special is the feeling of accomplishment you get when you’ve been hiking for a while and come across something like this, not to mention the views of the nearby mountains aren’t too shabby:

 

I was quite at ease, and as you can see, you certainly don’t have to worry about being overrun by tourists.

sel

While there certainly is more to Iceland than hot springs, it certainly is one of the country’s more unique attributes, and provides a great way to relax as you tour the country. Happy bathing!

The above is in no way meant to be a complete rundown of all the hot springs in Iceland; rather, it’s just my attempt to highlight a few particularly noteworthy yet different ones. There are many many more ones in Iceland that could be explored with enough time, and I’m sure there are even more that have yet to be discovered!

 

If you like hot springs and caves, Iceland’s Grjótagjá is paradise

If you like hot springs and caves, Iceland’s Grjótagjá is paradise

Other than seeing the Northern Lights, one of the things I was most excited to see on my recent trip to Iceland was the Grjótagjá hot springs cave.

While you’ve probably never heard of it before, if you’re a Game of Thrones fan you might recognize it from a particular scene (insert joke here about eight inches of Snow).

The cave itself has been around for centuries and served as a popular bathing spot, but in 1975, a volcanic eruption rendered the cave unswimmable, due to an extreme rise in the temperature of the water. Thankfully, the cave has been cooling slightly every year since then, and is now tolerable for swimming (albeit still very hot).

Getting there

First, I would only recommend going here if you are spending a week or more in Iceland. It is located in the less-traveled northern part of Iceland, which takes quite a while to reach by car. (Though if you only have a few days in Iceland but really want to see it, you can always book a cheap flight from Reykjavik Airport (RKV, not KEF) to Akureyri Airport).

While Grjótagjá is easier to find in the summer, it can be a bit difficult finding it in the winter, especially given that it is not listed correctly on Google Maps. The blue star indicates where it actually is; the red pin indicates where Google thinks it is:

grj

Highway 860 is clearly marked with a sign for Grjótagjá from both the entrances on Highway 1 (the Ring Road) and Highway 848, but you’ll want to enter from the Ring Road, as the road does not go all the way through certain times of the year.

Once you turn onto the road, be on the lookout on your right for a parking lot. There will usually be a few other cars there but if not, looked for a paved/groomed area where you can pull off. It is not very well-marked.

In addition to a small sign, there are two very nondescript entrances, looking like nothing more than a crack in the ground.IMG_20160310_163523IMG_20160310_172826

Getting down there

While you don’t have to go too far down, it is still somewhat of a scramble (especially in winter conditions), and you should wear appropriate shoes with sufficient traction. Do NOT go down in just your swimsuit, as it is extremely cold. It might also help if you have a flashlight of some sort, as it can be very dark.

The cave

Once you finish getting down, you will be rewarded with a spectacular sight like no other:

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Be very careful! It is very slippery on the rocks down there!

Bathing

While the sign outside instructs people not to swim in the cave, this is generally disregarded. However, as I mentioned before, the water is very hot! While I did not have a thermometer with me, the temperature of the water is estimated to be roughly 113 degrees Fahrenheit, or 45 degrees Celsius. This is getting pretty close to the upper limits of what the human body can tolerate. Though I highly recommend getting in the water, you will not want to move around very much, instead just staying still and relaxing. The more you move, the more the temperature of the water will hurt.

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Also, while nude bathing is generally not very common in Iceland, there is an expectation here for people to not wear any clothes into the water, solely to avoid contaminating the water with anything that might be found on a bathing suit. Obviously there is no one here to enforce this rule and no one will be stopped from entering with clothes, but it’s always a good idea to respect the local customs when traveling in a foreign country.

Getting out

Follow the sunlight!

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There are all sorts of crazy cheap flights on Frontier today…if you can fly mid-week

There are all sorts of crazy cheap flights on Frontier today…if you can fly mid-week

To a lot of people, $40 might be the cost of a nice meal, or an aggressive night at the local bar.

But today only, Frontier is offering $20 one-way flights on a number of their routes (and generally cheap fares on their other routes)…if you leave Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.

For example, you can fly $40 roundtrip between San Francisco and Phoenix (though remember that Frontier has a number of fees that they add on, including for checked bags).

sfo phx

Naturally, given that Frontier is headquartered in Denver, you’ll have the widest variety of cheap flights to choose from if you’re flying to or from Denver:

den

And while people in the Western United States will benefit more from this deal, there are a few great East Coast fares, such as the following between New York and Denver for $168:

nyc

This sale goes until midnight tonight, but it’s likely that many of these routes will be sold out well in advance (some already are), so get on it soon, if you have that kind of flexibility!

 

If you found a great fare, feel free to post about it in the comments.

 

If you travel to or from the East Coast once a year, the new JetBlue credit card is a good idea

If you travel to or from the East Coast once a year, the new JetBlue credit card is a good idea

Last year, American Express lost two key credit card partners: JetBlue, and Costco. While the Costco loss was more concerning to most people, I was personally more concerned with the loss of the JetBlue partnership, being based in Boston.

Thankfully, the new JetBlue card from Barclaycard is even better than the previous one from American Express.

There are three cards available: a personal card with an annual fee of $99 and a signup bonus of 30,000 TrueBlue points after spending $1,000 in the first three months, a business card with the same benefits, and a personal card with no annual fee, but only a bonus of 10,000 TrueBlue points.

Now, even if you’re not planning on making it your primary card (which I wouldn’t recommend), the personal card with the annual fee is still worth applying for and holding on to, thanks to its other benefits.

But first, what does the signup bonus of 30,000 points get you? As JetBlue’s award travel is directly correlated to the cost of the flight, it’s worth roughly $400-$500 of JetBlue flights, enough for at least a roundtrip coast-to-coast flight plus maybe an additional one-way flight back.

For example, after you spent the $1,000 on the card to get the bonus, you’d have 31,000 TrueBlue points, which could buy the bottom flight in the image below for 10,400 points (normally $179) almost three times. (For more on their relatively easy award booking process, go here).

jblu

But wait, there’s more! If you get this card, you also 10% of your bonus points back. So if you were to use 10,400 points to buy the flight above, it would essentially only cost you 9,360 points, as you would have 1,040 (10%) points returned to your account. This means that the signup bonus of 30,000 points is essentially closer to 33,000 points, which can get you as much as $567 of flights! Not a bad deal for a $99 fee.

“But why should I keep paying the fee after the bonus?”

Definitely a legitimate and understandable question. On most of my cards, I often will downgrade them to a no annual fee card once the annual fee hits for the next year (for more on this, go here).

However, this is one of the rare co-branded cards where it might be worth paying the fee, as you get an anniversary bonus of 5,000 points every year (which essentially becomes 5,500 points with the bonus).

5,500 points, while much less than 33,000 points, is still more than enough to get you a free one-way flight on shorter routes, such as Boston to DC (normally $84) or SF to LA (normally $72)

jblu4jblu3

Now, if you wouldn’t normally make one of these flights in a year, the no-fee card might be a better option. But if you already were, then it makes sense to continue paying the annual fee every year in exchange for a free short-haul flight.

On top of that, if you like to check your bags, the savings increases, as you and up to three others get your first checked bag free, a value of $60! And if you want to get the party started on board, the card also gives you 50% off in-flight purchases.

As I mentioned earlier, you should almost never make an airline card your primary credit card, as they tend to have little to no bonus categories. But considering that this card will also give you double points for purchases at restaurants and grocery stores (as well as 6x points on JetBlue purchases), this might actually be worth considering. The only other way to accumulate JetBlue points through credit card spending would be through the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card (but always try to find a link for 50,000 points), which, while it has a slightly higher signup bonus, only transfers to JetBlue at a 5:4 ratio, meaning those 50,000 points are only worth 40,000. The cards are equal in that they both have double points on restaurants and groceries, though the PRG also offers triple points on airfare and double points at gas stations. But in the long run, putting all of your spending on the JetBlue card will yield more TrueBlue points.

And given that JetBlue still offers the best domestic in-flight experience of any carrier, who wouldn’t want that?

JetBlue continues to offer the best in-flight experience of any domestic airline – and that isn’t changing

JetBlue continues to offer the best in-flight experience of any domestic airline – and that isn’t changing

I recently got to fly JetBlue from Boston to San Francisco, which is always a treat. While it’s certainly not the first time I’ve flown them, it was my first flight on them since I started this blog, and I thought I’d take some time to talk about why I love JetBlue so much (even if they missed out on a chance to become even more amazing by acquiring fellow amazing airline Virgin America).

I first flew JetBlue in 2008 when I needed to book a trip to the Bay Area for a job interview. I booked it because it was the cheapest flight, but immediately, I was impressed with the in-flight TV, great leg room, and lots of quality free snacks. Three years later, they would become the biggest carrier out of Boston’s Logan International Airport, demonstrating that Boston is indeed a big enough market for a major airline to establish a hub there, rather than having their passengers connect through another city to get to their final destination.

A little over a year ago, people freaked out when JetBlue announced that they would be cutting back on leg room and adding checked bag fees. People thought JetBlue was selling out and becoming another big airline that didn’t care about its customers. Lost in the hubbub was the fact that JetBlue still will offer the most leg room (33.1 inches in economy) out of any US domestic carrier. And after flying them last week, I can attest that they still offer the best in-flight experience of any domestic carrier (I hesitate to actually call them the best domestic carrier, as Virgin America’s in-flight experience is almost as good, and they have a better on-time record).

 

If you’re a sports fan (especially of Boston teams), it’s a pretty fun experience to fly JetBlue out of Logan Airport, as the entrance to the Terminal C features the numerous championship banners that Boston sports teams have won.

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As JetBlue has become the biggest carrier out of Logan, Terminal C is now almost exclusively JetBlue flights, save for flights on Emirates and Cape Air (both of whom they partner with) and Sun Country. The mood at the gate was a little festive, as they were celebrating the launch of its new Mint (first-class) cabin on transcontinental flights (which I have heard great things about, but doesn’t really have a place on this blog).

 

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I’ve always been impressed with how JetBlue manages to stay one step ahead of the competition. They were the only domestic airline offering free in-flight TV in 2008, and only now eight years later is this starting to become standard on the larger airlines, though many have not rolled it out to their full fleet yet.

Given that free in-flight TV no longer sets JetBlue apart from the competition, they’ve now aimed to stand out by not only offering free wifi, but wifi that actually works well. If you’ve ever tried to use Gogo Inflight wifi, you’ve probably ended up later cursing yourself for spending money on such an unreliable product. How bad is it? It’s so bad that American Airlines sued them to get out of their contract.

As JetBlue prides itself on customer satisfaction, rather than settle for a contract with a company that provides inferior wifi, they designed their own wifi, known as Fly-Fi. It’s free for basic internet usage like checking email and Facebook, and $10/hour for faster internet for things like streaming (though you can reduce the cost with a card like the Discover It Miles which covers up to $30/year of in-flight wifi). The basic internet also allows for free Amazon streaming.

IMG_20160324_221002 As the NCAA regional semifinals were also on, I did a little bit of multi-tasking, working on my blog, watching basketball in real-time, and doing work for my actual job (and I had no problems connecting to my company’s secure VPN and accessing files on the network).

IMG_20160324_221125If you grew up in the 90s, you might also remember VH1’s Pop-Up Video, which I watched for a little while and learned about Prince’s “1999.”

IMG_20160324_191753As you can see from the above photos, while these seats wouldn’t be mistaken for business class, I still had enough leg room for my 6’7″ frame.

With free in-flight TV, free wifi, plenty of leg room, and free jumbo-sized brand-name snacks and drinks, the 6-hour flight went by very smoothly, to the point that the recent announcements about scaling back do not bother me. Yes, while it would be nice in an ideal world to have free checked bags, JetBlue does need to please the investors somehow, and given that they’re still mostly a domestic carrier, I imagine most people will be able to pack everything they need into a carry-on suitcase.

Of course, for those who just do not want to pay this much money for all these nice amenities, there’s always Spirit.

Have a question? Feel free to email me, or post in the comments below.

 

There are all sorts of great $1 bus fares available on Megabus right now (even on the West Coast)

There are all sorts of great $1 bus fares available on Megabus right now (even on the West Coast)

Budget bus carrier Megabus recently opened up bookings to as far out as September 6, and as of the writing of this post, there are all sorts of usually elusive $1 bus fares available on very popular routes for very popular times.

Since moving back to Boston from San Francisco, bus travel has become a far more regular occurrence for me. Given that it’s a 4.5-hour bus ride from Boston to Manhattan is only slightly more time than it takes to fly between the two cities (once you factor in getting to the airport early, getting off the plane, and the significant amount of time it takes to get to Manhattan from any of the three New York City-area airports), I often choose to take the bus, as it’s far cheaper, I often can spread out more, make calls, and usually have pretty reliable wifi. (And if you take the train, which you can do for free if you accrue Amtrak points well, it will take you even less time).

Knowing that I had a few New York trips coming up, I instantly hopped on this sale to purchase some tickets for myself.

Doing a random search for some weekends a few months out yields quite a lot of results, like this Friday night to Sunday night itinerary between Boston and New York (note that the booking fee is $2, so it comes out to a $4 roundtrip ticket than $2):

bos nyc

The deal is even on for the far less popular (and longer) LA to SF route, one I’m still hoping for the Hyperloop to address, assuming it doesn’t go the way of the Monorail. Given that it’s about a 7.5-hour ride, I’m only expecting people with a fair amount of work flexibility to snatch this up, but it’s still worth noting:

latosf

Booking is relatively straightforward, and can be done by going to the Megabus home page.

And before you jump on me, I am aware of Megabus’ questionable safety record. I’ve never had any issues with them, even finding the drivers to be better than others. It is a risk I choose to take.

While I’m sure there’s many other great $1 deals available, I chose to focus on these two particular routes, given how popular both of them are. If you found another great deal that you’d like to share, feel free to post about it in the comments or email me.

(h/t BoardingArea)

 

The 1,000% cash back credit card that no one ever talks about (or, an easy way to make $100 a year)

The 1,000% cash back credit card that no one ever talks about (or, an easy way to make $100 a year)

OK, so I admit the title may be slightly misleading (is this what the kids are calling “clickbait” these days?)

While this is technically correct, it does take some explaining. Several years ago, Bank of America launched the Better Balance Rewards credit card, a card presumably intended to reward people for managing their credit better (certainly a big issue in America). The premise is pretty simple: For every quarter (three statement periods) in which you make more than the minimum payment on your balance in every month, you get $25 (and $30 if you have a Bank of America checking account).

Well, if you’re one of those people who already manages their credit responsibly and pays their balance in full every month, you may be wondering why this is of use to you. Well, the good news is that everyone is available to earn this bonus, and all you have to do is charge $1 to your card every month and pay that dollar off by the time your statement is due (it may be possible that you can get it for charging even less than $1, but I haven’t chanced it and haven’t found reports of other people doing it either).

In other words, if you charge $1 every month for three months ($3) to this card and have a Bank of America checking account, you’ll get $30, or 1,000% cash back. Of course, this isn’t a truly 1,000% cash back card as the reward is fixed. If you charge $30 in it to three months, it becomes a 100% cash back card. If you charge $1,000 to it in three months, it becomes a 3% cash back card, and so on. In other words, I wouldn’t recommend charging any more than you have to. If you’re worried you might forget to manually make a charge every month, you might consider using this card to make automatic payments on a utility bill every month so you don’t have to think about it. Just make sure you also set up automatic payments to pay the balance in full on your credit card!

The credit will usually post a few days into the statement period following the third month:

bbr

However, as Bank of America continues to impose all sorts of fees on their checking account customers without offering competitive interest rates, it’s more likely than not that like me, you’ve switched away from your Bank of America account that you opened up your freshman year of college (if you even did open up one). If this is the case, it will yield $25 for you every three months, or $100/year. If you’re looking for ways to make $100/year with minimal effort, it’s hard to beat this (on the contrary, to earn $100 in interest from your checking account, you’d have to keep $10,000 in it for a whole year at 1% APY, or $1,000,000 at 0.01% APY, which is closer to the rates most banks are offering these days).

If you really want to get as much out of this as possible and open up a Bank of America checking account to get the extra $5, you can avoid the $12 monthly fee by either having an average daily balance of $1,500 or more, monthly direct deposits of $250 or more, or being a Preferred Rewards client (which requires 3-month combined average balances of at least $20,000 between your Bank of America checking account and Merrill Lynch/Merrill Edge investment accounts). For most people (including me), this isn’t worth the effort.

I honestly don’t know why Bank of America would offer a credit card that allows it to lose so much money from their customers who use credit responsibly (and it’s possible they may discontinue it if they’re losing more than they’re making), but in the meantime, I’m not complaining. While $100/year may not seem like much, at this rate, if I hold on to it until I die, that’s an extra $7,000 or so I’ll make (of course, whether credit cards will be around in that many years is another story for another post).

Have questions about something here? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.