Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

3 Great Starter Travel Credit Cards

There are tons of credit card options out there, and most provide good value. However, there are a select few that make for a great starter card. If you are brand new to the travel hacking game and are not sure where to begin, I suggest you start with one of these three great starter travel credit cards:

  1. Chase Sapphire Preferred – This is still the bread-and-butter travel credit card for many people. This Chase card earns flexible points that can be used for travel purchase, redeemed for cash back, or transferred to several different hotel and airline loyalty programs. The standard offer for the card is 50,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months of card membership. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card does have annual fee of $95 (waived the first year). The value of this card is found in Chase’s quality transfer partners, plus it earns 2x points on travel and dining.
  2. American Express Everyday Card – While the bonus of this card isn’t especially high (typically 10,000-15,000 Membership rewards points), this card is good starter card. It is one of the few cards that earns transferable points that does not have an annual fee. Membership Rewards can be transferred to several airline loyalty programs and a few hotel programs. While I don’t find the transfer partners as lucrative as Chase’s partners, there are still a few that offer great value. The EveryDay card earns a place here since it is a great way to ease into the world of transferable points, plus it can earn up to 2.4x at grocery stores.
  3. CapitalOne Venture – CapitalOne doesn’t get a lot of love from the travel hacking world since most of their products generally aren’t all that great. However, their Venture card is actually a decent product. While you can get a card with equal earning potential that comes without an annual fee (hint – Citi DoubleCash), the Venture card comes with a sign-up bonus worth $400, and the annual fee is waived the first year (then $59). Plus, the rewards can be used for any purchase that codes as travel, so there is a lot of flexibility. This is a great starter card, but not one that I would keep in my wallet for more than a year or two.

Which is the best?

Of these, my pick for the “best card” is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. If are willing to take some time to learn the the basics of a few hotel and airline loyalty programs, it will provide the best value of the three. The card also offers additional perks such as trip cancellation insurance, primary car rental insurance, and no foreign transaction fees (i.e. no extra fees when you use your card outside the U.S. in another country’s local currency).

If your interested in a first card to start earning rewards, consider one of these three great starter travel credit cards. If either the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Amex Everyday look like the one for you, leave a comment and I’ll send you a referral email!

4 Beginner Travel Hacking Tips

If you are new to the travel hacking game, especially on how to use credit cards to earn oodles of miles and points, you may struggle to digest the huge amount of information available. There is so much on the internet that it may seem overwhelming. But don’t let that hinder you from getting started.

You may have lots of questions: how can I obtain free flights to [insert place]? What credit card is the best one to start with? How do I redeem the points and miles I earn? Should I be worried if a card charges an annual fee?

There are answers to all those questions, but they may be different for each person. For some, paying an annual fee simply won’t do. For others, it may be totally justified if the rewards are worth it.

You will need specific answers, but make sure you have some guiding principles in place. Here are my four beginner travel hacking tips for those just starting the miles and points game:

  1. Have a plan – Don’t apply for credit cards until you have a plan. It doesn’t need to be a fully developed plan, but you should have a goal in mind. It could be something like “travel to Hawaii in 2018 with my family of 4”. Having a specific trip or goal in mind allows you to focus your efforts on attaining that goal. Admittedly, I have sometimes applied for a credit card without considering how I will be able to use the points, but this isn’t the ideal strategy, and I certainly didn’t operate that way when I started out. I had a very specific goal in mind. Identify a goal, find a couple credit cards that will help you achieve that goal, and pull the trigger. Then, once you have the cards, learn the ins-and-outs of those specific programs.4 Beginner Travel Hacking Tips
  2. Start slow – Don’t rush into the travel hacking game. If you told me you got 27 credit cards your first year, I would probably raise an eyebrow. Maybe two. It has taken me years to be comfortable applying for a large number of cards, to understand the ins-and-outs of various loyalty programs, and to be able to earn and redeem hundreds of thousands of miles and points each year. Don’t rush. Learn the ropes first with a couple cards (that you’ve identified in your plan) before continuing down the travel hacking path. You’ll get better over time, trust me.
  3. Understand your financial situation and abilities – The travel hacking game isn’t for everyone. There is a lot to learn and understand. If you need simplicity, you may want to use a single good cash back card for a while before venturing further. Also, cards with annual fees aren’t for everyone. Personally, I keep several cards that charge an annual fee, but that is because the value they provide my wife and I is much greater than what we pay for them. But not everyone will see things the same way. Also, if managing your finances is generally a struggle and you do not have a budgeting system in place, credit cards may simply not be the thing for you.
  4. Do your research – Don’t apply for a credit card just because some blogger on the internet says it is the best card of the year. Some are paid commission to offer certain cards, and they’ll often sing their praises on a weekly basis. The card may or may not be something that is actually provides you value. I will recommend certain cards at times, and even then, do your own research to see if it is something that is a fit for your plan. There is also a ton to learn when it comes to redeeming points and miles. Make sure you research various programs. Also, the award travel world tends to change, so research is still imperative even once you have a basic handle on things.

Conclusion

These four beginner travel hacking tips will help you stay on track as you get into this game. Lots of people do crazy stuff with their points, and it’s easy to think either (a) it’s too difficult for me or (b) it’s too good to be true. I’m here to tell you that with a little planning, research, and practice, you can be doing amazing things with your own points and miles.

As a recap: have a plan, start slow, understand your situation, and do your research. You won’t go wrong.

If you live locally and are interested in a starter course in “travel hacking”, I’ll likely be offering one on a Monday evening in March or April. Details should be released this week!

Uber Launches Service in Humboldt!

Several months ago I had a discussion with a fellow consultant about Uber’s ride-sharing service. During the conversation, I remarked that Uber has zero presence in Humboldt. He quickly said, “no, they’re everywhere,” and pulled out his phone to prove me wrong. At the time, of course, he found nothing.

But today I was incredibly happy to inform him that Uber has now indeed started service in our rural area! At least….in theory. The app *does* show that there is service available in our area, but I wasn’t ever able to get anything besides ‘no cars available’ to show up for rides out of Ferndale today. Ditto for Fortuna. The only trips that I could request had to start and end in Eureka.

Even so, I am incredibly hopeful that drivers will sign up and reliable service will become available. I’ve already seen a couple people mention on Facebook that they are interested in becoming Uber drivers, which I think is uber cool.

Driving for Uber can be a great way to make some side money. An interesting fact: of all the Uber (and Lyft) drivers I’ve ridden with (probably 12-15 so far), none of them have said they drive full time, and I typically ask. It’s always a side gig. But almost all have said they enjoy it.

For those unfamiliar with Uber, here’s a quick rundown on the service:

Uber has been around for several years now. They began as an upstart startup that had the brilliantly crazy idea of building a app to bring together two types of people: those looking for a ride, and those with a car and willing to give people rides. For pay, of course.

Initially launched in 2010 in San Francisco, Uber has truly disrupted the ground transportation market. Their pricing is better than a taxi in 99% of cases, and the service is better, at least in all my experiences.

Uber has made it far easier to get around in a multitude of metropolitan areas, especially in places not typically frequently by cabs. Rather than having to google the phone number for a taxi service and call to explain where I need to be picked up, I can simply open the Uber app, set my location pin, and request a ride. It’s that simple.

How does Uber work?

The Uber mobile app is the heart of the system. Through it you can estimate fares and see nearby drivers. The app will also typically provide you with an estimate of how long it would take for a driver to pick you up should you request a ride.

There are typically a few different ride options. The typical, cheapest service is UberX. The vehicle will be a sedan or something else fairly small with space for 1-4 people. It will have 4 doors, though. The next step up is UberXL. This service will typically be provided by minivan or a small SUV that will hold up to 6 people.

Above those are the premium options. These are UberBLACK and UberSUV, which are served by high-end cars and SUVs.

My *very* excited wife in the back of an UberBLACK van.

Some recent additions I hadn’t noticed before are options for UberAssist and UberWAV, which summon drivers who can provide extra assistance or a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, respectively (if available). There is also an option for UberEspañol.

When you do request a ride, the app will alert a nearby driver. Once a driver has been found, the app will display the make, model, and plate number of the vehicle, as well as the name and a small picture of the driver. This helps the rider identify the car before it even gets to the curb. In the time I am waiting for the driver, I usually add the destination (if I hadn’t right when I started).

Contact information is also exchanged in-app for the rider and driver. In some situations, the driver has asked me to walk to a slightly different location that make pickup easier. In a couple instances, I’ve called the driver to figure out where he is when the app says he has arrived but I can’t see him.

When you hop in the car, expect courteous and professional service. I’ve had a few uber quiet drivers (see what I did there), but none that have actually been rude.

I would say that over half the drivers will hop out and help me with luggage. My guess is that an even larger percentage would happily offer to help, except that I am often only carrying a single bag or backpack, so it is unnecessary.

The beauty of the system is that the entire ride transaction flows through the app. Once your ride is complete, the charge is billed to your credit card on file. No cash has to exchange hands (although Uber drivers definitely don’t mind tips).

Will Uber survive in Humboldt?

Who knows. This area is pretty rural compared to the bulk of Uber markets. But Uber has been aggressive in it’s expansion, and it isn’t easily driven out of places in which the company makes inroads. I hope that Uber will allow people in Humboldt to make a little extra money providing a needed, helpful service to others.

The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia

Two weeks ago I took off across the Pacific on a one week trip to Australia. Of that week, I had 5 days and 5 nights to enjoy the land down under. The rest was travel time spent on a plane over the Pacific.

But some of it was very enjoyable travel time. Part of the impetus for the trip was to fly a long-haul in a premium cabin, something I had never done before. I’ve pulled a few 7+ hour flights in economy, but none in either business or first. I did fly international business-class when I headed to Guatemala in 2015, but it was essentially U.S. domestic first-class and only 5.5 hours. It was not what I wanted, either; I only booked the ticket in business because there wasn’t any economy award availability.

When I first considered planning a trip, I wasn’t even settled on Australia. I had originally hoped to visit a friend in Guatemala in November, but that fell through for various reasons. After that, I started browsing flights to get other ideas. My list of goals and constraints for the trip developed into:

  • Fly in a true international premium cabin (i.e. lie-flat seat)
  • Fly in a 747 before the U.S. carriers retire the last of them
  • Don’t burn much/any PTO
  • Go somewhere that won’t be scrutinized by the State Department and impact our adoption home study (idea #2 was visiting my friend Daniel in Iraq…had to scratch that)
  • Keep it cheap

In November I found the perfect ticket. There was saver availability for a premium cabin ticket from Arcata, California all the way to Sydney, Australia. The routing included the ACV-SFO hop, then SFO-ICN (Seoul, Incheon) in first-class on one of United’s 747s, then ICN-SYD in business-class on one of Asiana’s A380s. Not only would I get ride in the nose of a 747, but I would get to fly on the upper deck of an A380, the largest passenger jet in operation, for the first time. It was effectively two premium cabin long-hauls for the price of one. All for 80,000 United miles and $37 in fees. Win.

I found a return flight on Qantas in economy using 40,000 American Airlines miles. I held out for another business-class seat, but it never materialized.

My wife Kelsey and I discussed both of us going. When I booked my ticket, there was only one seat available, and I didn’t have the miles for both of us in business, anyway. By the time I had enough points in December, there was a ticket available, except the leg from SFO to ICN was on a different flight. Not ideal.

Kels has also been on a special healing diet for the last couple months as well, which can make long periods of air travel difficult. We decided that I could go on a solo adventure to Australia, but we plan to return together someday in the future (Lord willing), again on miles, of course.

What can you fit into a one week trip to Australia?

One week is not much time to travel so far, all things considered. Sydney is nearly 7,500 miles from San Francisco.  Travel time cut the one week time-frame down to 5 days and 5 nights down under. But 5 days is still plenty of time to see some sights and enjoy Australia.

Plus, the time in the sky was a blast, so I don’t want to skip over it completely. The experience flying SFO-ICN on one of United’s last 747s was amazing. We did have an interesting incident along the way, but overall, the flight was great. I got some work done, watched a couple movies, and caught a little sleep in the fully lie-flat first-class seat. It was also insanely cool being right in the nose of the 747. The flight attendants were great, and they made the trip immensely enjoyable. I wrote a full review of the experience over at Points with a Crew.

The Asiana flight was great as well. The business-class seats are very nice, and the food was fantastic. Not to mention the A380 felt brand new. I got nearly 4 hours of quality sleep during the flight, so I was able to tackle my first day in Sydney feeling mostly refreshed.

Landing in Sydney at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning Aussie time, I had a full day ahead of me to explore. I checked into the Holiday Inn Old Sydney, and then decided to take one of the walking routes suggested in the guidebook I picked up at the airport. It took me past the Opera House, through the Royal Botanic Garden, past the New South Wales State Library, and down to the Australia Museum. It was an enjoyable overview of the Sydney Central Business District (CBD).

I also walked the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which provides great views of the CBD and the Opera House, as well as the harbour all around. The Sydney Harbour is spectacular! It is the largest natural harbour in the world, and is quite the sight.

One Week Trip to Australia - Sydney Opera House

The iconic Sydney Opera House

The second day included a harbour tour. I bought a ticket that included both a 24-hour ferry pass, as well as admission to the Sydney Tower Eye. I spent the morning and early afternoon cruising the harbour, stopping at both Watson’s Bay and Manly Wharf to explore. The Aussie tour guide pointed out both Shark Island and Shark Beach as places to visit. The former is a pleasant island in the middle of the harbour. The latter is a swimming beach. Not sure how I feel about that.

I got off the ferry mid-afternoon in Darling Harbour, along the west side of the Sydney CBD, and walked to the Sydney Tower Eye. The views from the tower are spectacular. The ferry + eye combined ticket is $35 USD, but it is well worth it, in my opinion.

One Week Trip to Australia - Sydney Tower Eye

Eastern Sydney Harbour from the Tower Eye

Day three was spent in the Blue Mountains. I switched hotels that morning to a Holiday Inn in Paramatta, a Sydney suburb. It was an ideal jumping off point for the Blue Mountains and was a better deal than the one in downtown Sydney.

One Week Trip to Australia - Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are amazing. They were by far my favorite place I visited in Australia.  The train drops you a short bus ride from the edge of the escarpment, from which you get take in beautiful views of the forest falling away before you. I hiked the giant staircase down into the valley floor and then took the funicular train back up to the top. There is nothing like hiking through the eucalyptus forest and under the giant Australian trees ferns.

My fourth day was a laid-back travel day. I caught up with work during the morning, and then headed to Sydney Central Station to catch the train to Canberra. The train ride wasn’t quite what I hoped, but it was a good day nonetheless.

One Week Trip to Australia - Australian Parliament Building in Canberra

My final full day was spent exploring the Australian Capital. I visited the National Museum and toured both the Old Parliament House and the new Australian Parliament. It was an interesting brief education in some Australian history, politics, and government. I stayed at the Hyatt Canberra, a beautiful historic hotel, for both nights I was in the capital.

The next morning it was wheels-up from Canberra airport as I began my journey back to California. From take-off at Arcata to touch-down at SFO, I was gone for 7 days, 2 hours, and about 30 minutes.

What did a one week trip to Australia cost?

Considering that we have been diligently saving for adoption, not to mention our recent purchase of a newer vehicle, a trip to Australia is well outside our normal budget.

Or is it? In the end, it was actually quite cheap, all things considered. That’s the power of miles and points. Here’s the breakdown for the trip:

Transportation:

  • First and business-class flights from Arcata to Sydney – 80,000 United miles + $37
  • Economy flights from Canberra to SFO – 40,000 American Airlines miles + $104 (covered by Arrival miles, so $0)
  • Train from Sydney to Canberra – $0 (used Arrival miles)
  • Other train, bus, and taxi – about $51
  • Total – $88

Lodging:

  • 2 nights at the Holiday Inn Old Sydney – 35,000 points per night, so 70,000 IHG points
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn Paramatta – used part of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit, so $0
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Canberra – used 1 Hyatt “free” night certificate and 15,000 Hyatt points
  • Total – $75 annual credit card fee for the “free” night

Food:

  • Breakfasts – $22
  • Lunches – $33
  • Dinners – $26
  • Total – $81 or $16 per day, pretty reasonable

Attractions:

  • Blue Mountains Scenic World ticket – $29
  • Captain Cook Cruises + Sydney Eye ticket – $35
  • Parliament Tours and Museums – $2
  • Postcards – $10
  • Total – $76

The grand total for the trip came to $320 (or $46/day, including the travel days). For a one week trip to Australia. Including flights, transportation, attractions, and food. Talk about a bargain. I even got pajamas from United out of the deal.

But that is what this game is all about: seeing the world for cheap. Flights to Australia from the U.S. normally run at least $1,000 round-trip in economy. The hotels I stayed at would have easily been another $1,000, if not more. All of that cost was reduced to just over $100, and then I just had to foot the cost of food, attractions, and minimal ground travel.

When Kels and I return together, it’ll be the same story. That’s the power of this points and miles hobby.

Sydney, Australia in 13 photos

Two days of my little trip down under were spent enjoying Sydney. As Australia’s largest city (20% of the Aussie population lives in Sydney or its suburbs), there is a lot to see. I barely scratched the surface. Here are my favorite photos:

Circular Quay

Opera House from Royal Botanic Garden

Eastern Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Tower Eye

Sydney Harbour Bridge

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Manly Beach

Sydney CBD from the Opera House steps

Entry to the NSW State Library

The iconic Sydney Opera House

Royal Botanic Garden

Western Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Tower Eye

Coastal cliffs east of Watson’s Bay

Flying in to Sydney Kingsford Smith airport

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