Friday, October 5, 2012

Aloha Means Hello and (Temporarily) Goodbye?

More so than I ever imagined, I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog each and every day.  I have talked to a lot of readers, whether they be friends, family, or new faces that I met through the site.  It seems like each person takes something new from it, so your enthusiasm has really kept me motivated and excited to churn out new content.

A couple of weeks ago, I applied for an internship to begin writing for the website MileValue. The site administrator is really interested in creating easy and rational explanations of the myriad promotions offered by airlines and hotels.  His valuations of miles and hotel points allow readers to make analytic decisions on whether they should stay at a certain hotel brand, fly a certain carrier, and take part in a particular deal.

I am writing several times a week recapping the hot topics being discussed on such popular frequent flyer message boards as FlyerTalk and MilePoint.  When I have enough posts under my belt, I will make sure to link them here.

In the meantime, this site will NOT be shuttering its doors.  I will still be posting hotel and restaurant reviews, along with some other random musings and pictures.  I have received a lot of positive feedback on my travel reviews, so I will be sure to keep them coming.

Check out MileValue and all it has to offer.  Make sure to check back here often as well.  I will be posting good articles and travel reviews as they come.

Until next time, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Wacky Things I've Done For Points & Miles (Part I)

I'm very reticent to share these details, but here goes.  Many people wonder how I have amassed over 2.5 million frequent flyer miles in the span of about four years.  I've certainly earned through conventional methods such as staying in hotels or taking flights (or even apply for a credit card or two), but to really ramp up the earning, I have also done some pretty oddball things.

If this post is successful, it will probably turn into an ongoing series detailing all the zany ways I've upped my balances. But for now, I will hit on the greatest one of all, the Presidential $1 coin shuffle!

Back in 2009, the U.S. Mint started a program intended to circulate $1 coins throughout communities across the country.  Individuals were encouraged to purchase the $1 coins at face value and then spend them at places like dry cleaners, farmer's markets, local restaurants, and any other places where using a credit card was not available or frowned upon.

Free Miles From The Government?
The spirit of the program certainly had noble intentions, but there was one large issue: coins could be purchased with ANY credit card at face value.

Very quickly, folks in the frequent flyer community figured out how to "game" the system.  People used their travel credit cards to purchase sets of $1 coins (sold in heavy boxes of $500).  When the shipped coins arrived on their doorstep, they immediately deposited them in their bank and used the money to pay off their credit card statement (now showing a $500 charge for the coins).  The effect?  Unlimited frequent flyer miles!

There were of course drawbacks to this "scheme."  Holding onto that many coins was risky, especially if UPS misplaced a shipment or two.  They were also INCREDIBLY heavy.  I remember nearly passing out trying to lug $2,000 to a bank in the middle of summer.  Some more, ahem, zealous frequent flyers were depositing upwards of $20,000 every week!  Don't believe me?  Check out the screen shot below from a frequent flyer named "Mr. Pickles."

That's Heavy
As you can imagine, this frenzy caught on quickly and soon banks were inundated with these coins.  The Mint began to impose purchase limits ($1,000 every 10 days) and then eventually restricted orders to money order payments before the program finally died a noble death last year.  In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of miles were earned by frequent flyers across the country, all while getting some exercise via heavy lifting!

I certainly got strange looks explaining this method to friends and family, but it was a great way to supplement my mileage accounts.  What do you guys think?  Should I have been locked up for such as a crazy scheme?  Would you like this to become an ongoing series?  Drop me an email or leave a comment.

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Introducing The Frugal Lawyer!

Some of my most popular posts over the past two months have centered around great airfare deals, such as the flash JetBlue one-day sale and incredible fares to Hawaii found here and here.

With the popularity of "deal-finding" on a meteoric rise, I wanted to reach out to a close friend to hopefully share some insight with you.  Nicknamed "The Frugal Lawyer," he constantly scours the internet for great bargains on just about everything.  When I need to make a major (or minor) purchase, I usually consult with him first.

The Frugal Lawyer Himself
Hopefully he will share some of his tricks and methodology in future posts on how to nab that perfect deal.  In the meantime, let me introduce you to the Frugal Laywer via a comprehensive Q&A session!

How and/or why did you get into deal-finding?  What's special about your methodology?

When I feel like I get ripped-off, it really bothers me.  I can't really explain it, but it gives me a knot in my stomach.  So, I just try not to rush into any decision and just do as much research as possible.  For major purchases, I just take my time and get a sense for that good prices are.  Then, when a great deal comes along, I feel comfortable to grab it quickly.  

What websites do you use to find your deals and how often do you check them?

I use a couple of different sites, namely DealNews and SlickDeals.  I found dealnews first, and check it periodically throughout the day.  What really impressed me was that it doesn't just list a sale.  It tells you if it's the lowest price, by how much, and compares it to times the item previously went on sale.  Moreover, it has an "Editor's Choice" section for the truly crazy deals.  If you don't want to check the website throughout the day, you can sign up for the dealnews newsletter where they simply email you the Editor's Choice deals for that day.  It's a great snapshot for bargains over the last 24 hours.

ALSO, I rely on Amazon for a majority of my purchases.  If you don't have time to wait for a deal, their prices are often the best.  Though, there are ways to double-check with Amazon as well.  Did you know that prices for Amazon products can shift daily?  I often consult the ridiculously-named site:  This website tracks prices for every product sold on Amazon and can give you a line graph for recent price fluctuations.  So, let's say you are interested in a particular toaster.  You plug the Amazon product link into this website, and you see that it was $10 less last month.  If you are not in a rush, you can set an email alert where they will notify you when the price drops again.  It's awesome. 

What's the one thing my readers can do to save money that they don't do already?

There are tons of way to save money every single day.  The biggest thing is to avoid monthly fees whenever possible.  People are also ripped off every day by cable companies, cell phone carriers, and drug stores.  There are really interesting (and totally viable) ways to cut down on those monthly costs, and I'd love to elaborate on them another time!

What's the single most successful deal you've ever encountered and why?

A couple of incredible deals come to mind, and with them came some valuable lessons.  My first crazy deal involves Joseph A Bank, the notoriously deal-happy mens clothing store.  They advertise deals CONSTANTLY, and it's easy to lump them all together.  The trick is not to get suckered in, and wait for the "big one" - when their clearance merchandise is marked off an additional 50% off.  These deals come around a couple of times a year, and you have to watch for them closely.  One day a couple of years ago I literally stumbled into the deal when I was walking past one of their stores.  When I did some poking around, I saw a  $1000 suit marked down to $200.  To this day, it's my favorite suit.  And I still watch carefully for that sale - it's also a great way to get $100 dress shirts for $20 (they make great gifts for family - and people think you spent way more than you did).

Plenty of Deals to be Had at Jos. A. Bank
How does your spouse feel about your deal-finding.  Does she support it?

I am exceedingly fortunate in this regard.  My wife and I are both incredibly frugal, so we are 100% on the same page about the importance of savings.  I am clearly more obsessive about it, but I am slowly converting her to the dark side of deal finding.  

What is your "most memorable" deal?  

My most memorable deal is also my most shameful, but I honestly love the story.   One day I was looking for a new sportcoat on ebay.  I found a really nice one in my size, and on a hunch I clicked to view the other offering by this seller. Lo and behold, an entire wardrobe was on sale!  With no minimum bids!  After an evening of bidding against one or two pesky people, I walked away with two suits, a sportcoat, three sweaters, and eight pair of fancy wool slacks.  I paid shockingly little money - I think I won one of the suits for like $30.  

After the bidding process, I contacted the seller about consolidating shipping costs.  She was happy to oblige and was very polite.  Unfortunately, she elaborated a bit about the ownership of these garments, and it quickly became clear that this was an estate sale (i.e. the previous owner had passed away).  Some people find this story to be very troubling, but I proudly wear these garments as a badge of honor for the best best deal I have ever encountered.  

Any other parting suggestions/advice for my readers?

Do your research in advance and be ready to pounce when you find that deal.  I really enjoy helping people find deals, but many people are so hesitant to pull the trigger and miss out on the great ones.  It can be frustrating to point people towards one deal after another, only to watch each deal sell out before that person summons the courage to make the purchase.  Figure out the specs you need, decide if refurbs are OK with you (hint: they should be), and grab that deal before it goes away!

We look forward to having the Frugal Lawyer's contributions on this site.  If you want to give him any suggestions on future posts, don't hesitate to email me.

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Interesting Travel Articles For the Day

Time to shine those reading glasses and get ready for some more quality travel articles.

The first article, featured in the New York Times, discusses the increasing Americanization of the famous  Champs-Élysées in Paris.  A mecca of fashion and upscale shopping, the article points to the increasing number of fast food restaurants and traditionally American stores that are populating each side of the street.  Many Parisians are distancing themselves from the area altogether, as its touristy nature of the street feels far removed from authentic French culture and fashion.

Champs-Élysées at night
The second article, from CNN Travel, is a list of tips on staying healthy while traveling abroad.  Many tourists have a large fear of getting sick while abroad, and this article spells out ways to minimize the frustration and confusion that comes with an illness while traveling.  My top tip to take from this is know your own health insurance and its benefits (along with limitations).  The last thing you want is to be stuck with a massive bill that comes from an evacuation back to the United States.

A close friend of mine was actually hurt in Poland while studying abroad, and his experience getting medical attention and transport back to the U.S. was harrowing, to say the least.  Make sure to pay attention to this article if you are going somewhere with less than a first-rate reputation for urgent medical care.

New York Times: The Champs-Élysées, a Mall of America

CNN Travel: Five Ways to Stay Healthy While Traveling Abroad

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Key to the Travel Game? Flexible Points (Part I)

I recently wrote a rookie introduction to the points/miles collecting game, but I wanted to double back and add another important tip.

Many people I have talked to lately get incredibly frustrated when collecting and redeeming points.  They fly their preferred airline a ton, save up a boat load of points, and when they are ready to book?  Zero viable options for their travel dates.

I don't know a lot of people with work schedules that can be changed on a whim.  When folks make vacation plans, the dates are usually set in stone.  If that sounds like you (and for the vast majority of America, it is), then I highly suggest you focus on accumulating FLEXIBLE points.  These types of points can be transferred into multiple airline and hotel programs, allowing you to create a great vacation out of thin air.  No longer will you look on Delta's website in disgust and give up when there are no awards that fit your schedule.  You will have options, and that goes a long way when booking travel.

Which are the best "flexible points" programs?  There are three that come to mind.  I will preview the Starwood points today, and the other two great flexible point programs (American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards) in the coming days.  Make sure to catch all three posts.

A Great Way to Accumulate Starpoints: The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express
I already wrote up the Starwood Preferred Guest program here, but I wanted to expand a bit on its usefulness.  For me, there is no more valuable currency than Starpoints.  I have the ability to redeem for some truly incredible hotels (think "W", St. Regis, and Westin properties) or I can turn them into airline miles in many programs at a 1:1 ratio.

The best part about transferring into airline miles?  Starwood will kick in 5,000 miles for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer.  You can convert 20,000 Starpoints into 25,000 American Airlines miles.  That's a nifty 25% bonus!

The list of transfer partners is truly expansive.  The two I use most often are American Airlines and U.S. Airways, but there is value in swapping to others as well.  I can't say enough good things about the potential transfer options.

Small Sample of the Many SPG Transfer Partners
The only drawback is that transfers usually take 1-2 weeks, so planning ahead is very important when transferring.  After all, an award ticket you see today might not be there when your transfer is finally completed.  Also, Starwood is not the program to use if you value United miles.  Starpoints transfer to United at a paltry 2:1 ratio, so you will really lose out by doing so.  

Starwood Preferred Guest "Starpoints"

Ways to Earn: American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card, hotel stays in the Starwood brand (e.g. Westin, Sheraton).

Airline Transfer Partners: American, Delta, U.S. Airways, Alaska, Hawaiian, British Airways (and that's just to name a few!)

Hotel Transfer Partners: None (but very useful at all Starwood branded hotels!)

Pros: Variety of useful partners.  5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer to an airline.

Cons: Transfers are NOT instantaneous, so the award tickets you are eyeing could be gone by the time your transfer is complete.  Transfers to United Airlines come at a very unfavorable ratio (2 Starpoints: 1 United mile) 

If you have any questions about this post, don't hesitate to write me an email.  I also respond to questions on Twitter.  Keep the queries coming!

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Friday, September 21, 2012

Photo of the Day #2

Another great morning, and another Photo of the Day.  If you think you have an eye for travel photography, make sure to submit your best pictures to me via email.  You could be featured in an upcoming Photo of the Day!

The following picture is taken from near the military training facilities in Paris (École Militaire) of the world famous Eiffel Tower.  Most shots of the Eiffel Tower are from up close or from the other side Seine River.  I was trying to capture something slightly unique in this staged shot.  Hopefully you enjoy!

Eiffel Tower
Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hotel Review-Westin New York Times Square

Though I rarely travel for work, I had business to attend to in New York two weekends ago.  I'm by no means an expert when it comes to the Big Apple, though I can at least attest I'm not overwhelmed when traveling there.  It just so happens that my company was able to provide a room at the Westin Times Square, a property I've stayed at before during Christmas time.  I redeemed points for a room on that stay that included free breakfast at the now-closed Atrium Club.  It was a memorable trip, but this visit would be solid as well.

View from Hotel Towards Hectic Times Square
I really enjoy the location of the Westin.  Located at the corner of 43rd and 8th, the property is extremely close to the Times Square hornet's nest, but also far enough removed that the noise and crowds aren't overwhelming.  Close to the subway and most Broadway theaters, I really can't say enough good things about it.

Entrance to Hotel
The Westin's lobby is actually separated on two separate floors.  The bottom level is for bag checks and a good meeting point for large parties.  Late at night, security checks hotel keys to ensure only guests are permitted in the main lobby, a nice feature.  The first floor also had a mock tennis court painted on the ground, a nice tip of the cap to the U.S. Open which was happening at the time of my stay.

First Floor Lobby
Tennis Anyone?
The second floor lobby contains the check in area and the hotel's second restaurant, Bar 10.  Though sometimes crowded, the space never felt noisy and featured plenty of comfortable chairs.

Large Check-In Area
Comfortable Second Floor Lobby Seating
Due to my Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status, I was assigned a room on the Starwood Preferred Guest floor.  Before anyone gets too excited, most Sheraton and Westin properties have a Starwood floor, but I've never noticed a difference in room size or quality.  The floor is usually one of the highest ones that provides (slightly) better views and quieter surroundings.

Room Entrance
My room was large by New York standards, and featured a Westin Heavenly King bed along with a desk for catching up on work.  I have to hand it to Westin, I sleep more soundly on their mattresses than I do on mine at home!  If they ever run another big sale on beds, you can be sure I'm buying.

Comfy Westin Heavenly Bed
Decent Desk and TV
I should probably note here that my Gold status also got me free Wi-Fi.  I found the internet speed to be blazing fast, an unusual rarity in hotels today.  I was able to get plenty of work done at my desk during the trip, something I didn't even anticipate.

The bathroom was small but functional, and featured the standard white tea amenities from Westin.  The shower had dual heads, meaning water pressure was absolutely not an issue.  One drawback, though, was the black tile on the floor and walls.  It really showed some dirt and water splashes, so it had a rather grimy look, even when I first entered the room.  I suppose you could chalk that up to being a well-traveled New York hotel.

Small but Usable Bathroom, Can You Spot What's Odd?
Westin White Team Amenities
As I mentioned before, the Starwood Preferred Guest floor is one of the highest in the hotel.  My room had a really great view to the north of both Times Square and the larger buildings in Manhattan.

Overall, my stay at the Westin Times Square was extremely pleasant.  All the staff I interacted with showed a friendly demeanor, and my room was perfectly suitable, especially by New York standards.  I enjoy being slightly removed from the Times Square tourist mayhem as well.

Though I have another trip planned to New York in December, hopefully I will be able to review another property for you guys.  Otherwise, it might be back to the comfortable Westin!

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler