Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: October 2016 (page 1 of 2)

RoboLuggage? This Is Straight Out Of Sci Fi!

Smart phones. Smart cars. Smart…..luggage? Travelers take note: the days of wheeling you own suitcase around may be numbered.

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The Cowarobot is the first “smart suitcase” hitting the market

First, there is Cowarobot. Watch a video of  R1, the “fully autonomous smart suitcase,” and all its amazing features. The user controls the unit with a custom bracelet, and you can also track your R1’s location using a smartphone app. It can navigate obstacles and has a “cliff sensor,” allowing it to avoid tumbling down stairs. If needed, you are able to change the robot from autonomous to manual mode. But why do this if the suitcase can follow you at speeds up to 4.5 mph? Cowarobot is already TSA approved and will be shipping next month. The price tag? Only $519. Smart doesn’t come cheap. Not to mention it is only carry-on size.

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Both the Cowarobot and Travelmate can be controller via app

Then there is Travelmate. This fully autonomous robot suitcase is currently in the fundraising stage (via IndieGoGo, just like Cowarobot), but the developers have already made a great video of it in action. Just like the Cowarobot, the suitcase is paired with a smartphone app, and it allows you to charge your devices from its battery while on the go. The Travelmate’s motion and obstacle sensors will allow it to keep up with your movements, even through crowded, busy airports. It’s price tag? at least $399 in support via IndieGoGo will get you a Model S sometime next year. Travelmate plans to launch a total of 3 different sizes.

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The Travelmate may have a couple better features, but won’t be available until at least mid-2017

Pros and cons of each? Personally, I think Cowarobot has a much classier look, but the wheel design and stability of the Travelmate appear superior. It is hard to tell at this stage because neither have quite hit the market, and there are no reviews. As with any new technology, I would anticipate at least a few problems out the gate.

What I find hysterical is that these two smart suitcases have literally jumped off the pages of a set of science fiction novels that I recently finished: the Quadrail series, by Timothy Zahn. The stories are a mystery-thriller where humans are a fledgling empire among a dozen others, all of which are joined by the enigmatic Quadrail, the only means of traversing the galaxy. The books are written from the perspective of Frank Compton, a witty and adroit investigator whose deductive skills keep him a step ahead of his adversaries. And the reader. Quadrail carrybags are introduced in the first book, and Zahn’s description of them is eerily similar to these being developed. I highly recommend the series.

Now the question is, should I preorder my own Travelmate carrybag?

Images courtesy of the Cowarobot and Travelmate IndieGoGo pages. 

A Beginner’s Rundown On Southwest RapidRewards

Southwest Airlines is one of my favorite airlines. Actually, I previously wrote about how they are my favorite airline, but I may need to qualify that now. They are my favorite domestic airline. Alaska is also giving them a run for their money. But Southwest sill reigns supreme due to their fantastic checked luggage allowance, great service, cheerful personnel, and tendency to arrive at destinations ahead of schedule. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time a was on a delayed Southwest flight.

While I could continue my unabashed monologue on the merits of Southwest, I want to instead focus on solely their loyalty program: RapidRewards.

Rapid Rewards Basics

Unlike the majority of airline loyalty programs, RapidRewards neither uses a currency of “miles” nor prices awards based on zone or distance. Instead, you earn RapidRewards points, and award prices are revenue-based (i.e. correlated with the price of cash fares). Zones don’t exist. If a cash fare is cheap, the price in points will be cheap. For example, a one-way flight from Oakland, California to San Diego, California costs either $69 or only 3,676 points.

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Flights next month from OAK-SAN start at $69.

This award price is incredible. Other domestic carriers generally charge 7,500 to 12,500 miles for the same one-way ticket. This is because all are priced by zone and/or distance, and since the entire United States is one zone, it doesn’t matter if you are flying OAK-SAN or OAK-MIA. Same price. Some other carriers offer “short hop” prices for routes like OAK-SAN, but you should still expect to pay at least twice the points that Southwest requires for the Oakland-San Diego ticket. Nothing beats this value.

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Or they start at 3,676 RapidRewards points plus $5.60 in government fees.

Revenue-based award pricing may seem like a boon, but it is a double-edged sword. During peak travel times, the price of paid fares usually goes through the roof, and so do award flight prices. This example of an Oakland-Baltimore flight the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend is a perfect illustration. The cash fare is $405 one-way! Or you could instead pay 29,089 RapidRewards points. Any other carrier would charge you 12,500 miles if they had saver award space. But good luck finding availability!

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OAK-BWI fare on 11/27/16. Or 29,089 RapidRewards points. Might be worth it in a pinch.

If you are dead set on a Thanksgiving visit with family, Southwest could still be your go-to in a pinch. As long as a seat is available, you can purchase it with points rather than cash. Even if the price is astronomical.

What Are Points Worth?

Which brings us to an important question: how much is a RapidRewards point worth? Well…it depends. Southwest’s award ticket prices are correlated to cash fares, but there isn’t a fixed value per point. You should expect to get about 1.5 cents per RapidRewards point, but it varies. Price, demand, route, and potentially other factors come into play. At least that is my deduction. The actual award pricing algorithm is a black box.

So we just have to roll with it. As I mentioned before, 1.5 cents per point is a decent baseline. In the OAK-SAN example above, the exact cash fare was $68.98. Subtracting the security fees and dividing by the award price of 3,676 points, we are left with a value of 1.72 cents per RapidRewards point. Not bad. This is on the high end. Conversely, the OAK-BWI Thanksgiving example is only a return of 1.37 cents per point.

From this we can surmise that high price and/or demand results in a worse return for your points. I have read complaints about Southwest not being forthright about their award pricing structure, or that the “black box” system allows them to change it incrementally without people noticing, but I don’t really buy this argument. Southwest is known for their great customer service, and a subtle devaluation would go completely against the grain of their organization. So it really doesn’t bug me that awards cost more during peak periods. I just accept it.

Earning Rapid Rewards Points

So now we know how awards are priced. But how do we earn RapidRewards points?

Well, there is the obvious: by flying Southwest. Depending on the fare class, you earn either 6x, 10x, or 12x the base fare. Business select fares earn the most while the “Wanna Get Away” fares earn the least.

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Fare rules and RapidReward earning rates for Southwest’s 3 fare classes.

You may think that this means I would earn 414 points for the $69 OAK-SAN “Wanna Get Away” fare in the first example. In reality, I would only 306 points. This is because “base fare” is the price of the fare without any taxes or fees. It turns out that the base fare for that flight is only $51.05, so that’s where the total of 306 (51 x 6) RapidRewards points comes from. You can see the fare breakdown once you have selected a flight on southwest.com and moved to the Price/Summary page.

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Sample fare breakdown for the OAK-SAN flight.

The “Wanna Get Away” fares are nearly always significantly cheaper than either the Business Select or Anytime fares, so there is no reason to pick the more expensive ones just for the points multiplier.

There are a number of ways you can earn RapidRewards points other than flying. Southwest has partnerships with a number of hotel chains and rental car companies, some of which offer a significant number of RapidRewards points. Hotel partners include Best Western, Choice Hotels, La Quinta, Marriott, Hyatt, and more. I do not advocate foregoing hotel points in order to earn RapidRewards points, unless you are staying with a chain that you rarely utilize. You can also transfer Marriott points to RapidRewards points.

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Earn extra points with Southwest’s several car rental partners.

Car rental is another option. I only collect rental points with two providers (Hertz and Enterprise), so earning RapidRewards points for rentals with other companies can be a great deal. There is a “Frequent Flyer Surcharge” on most car rentals when you earn points, but it is on the order of $1 per day. Generally, it’s totally worth it.

Other means of accruing points include the RapidRewards shopping portal, the dining program, and various opinion and survey panels. I often use the dining program when I am traveling for work. It is a nice extra bonus. Figure out what works for you. The surveys can easily require more time than they are worth.

Finally, there are the co-branded Southwest Visa cards issued by Chase. They offer okay value. Try to apply when they are offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points. The cards both earn 2 points per dollar on Southwest flights and purchases made with Southwest’s hotel and rental car partners. For all other purchases you earn 1 point per dollar.

On the surface this seems like a pretty good deal. However, Southwest is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers the same (or better) earning potential, with added benefits like better purchase protection and trip insurance. Plus, your points aren’t locked into Southwest.

The disadvantage is that earning Chase points and transferring them to Southwest doesn’t help you earn the Companion Pass (more on this some other time). This is the primary advantage of the co-branded credit cards. Any points earned via credit card spending do count toward Companion Pass qualification. You can also earn Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) with a large amount of spending (1,500 TQPs per $10,000 in spending, up to a total of $100,000) which helps toward A-List qualification. The credit cards also offer anniversary points that help offset the annual fee.

Using Rapid Rewards Points

This is the easy (and fun) part. Booking flights using RapidRewards points at southwest.com is really straightforward. When you search for flights, you can toggle between dollars and points. Simply choose the price(s) in points, and click continue. You’ll then see the total points required and the fees you’ll still have to pay. When you complete checkout, the points will be immediately deducted from your total balance.

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Total cost in cash and points for the OAK-SAN award fare.

What if you need to change or cancel the award flight you just booked? This is where Southwest really shines. Unlike most carriers that charge ridiculous fees for award ticket changes or cancellations, Southwest allows you to cancel award flights free of charge up until 10 minutes before your flight! The fees will be refunded, and your points will be redeposited. That’s awesome.

You can also use this fantastic cancellation/change policy to save points. Say I booked the OAK-SAN flight for 3,676 points yesterday, but the price dropped to 3,056 points today. Rather than keep the ticket I booked yesterday, I could simply cancel it and re-book the same flight at a lower cost. Voila, I saved 620 points! This “trick” has come in handy on several occasions.

Some Final Thoughts

So there you have it. I hope you have enjoyed this rundown on Southwest RapidRewards. It is a fantastic program and offers great value for domestic (and a few international) flights. If you haven’t already, enroll for a free RapidRewards account and start earning points. Consider getting a Chase Sapphire Preferred card to boost your balance. Above all, LUV Southwest.

Header image courtesy of BriYYZ.

A Tale Of Two Minivans

It became evident during the past few days that I intensely dislike car shopping. Salespeople generally put me off already, but it becomes even more nerve-wracking when you are looking at a several thousand dollar used car purchase. So stressful. But the ordeal is over, and we have swapped our old Dodge for a much newer Honda.

For a couple years now, my wife and I have been saving to buy a new vehicle. We inherited a minivan from my wife’s grandpa just before we were married, and it has served us well enough for four years.  A bit cantankerous at times, it had an annoying habit of rebelling each time we wanted to take out of the county. But other than that it generally ran well.

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The first real rain came with a fury. And once again revealed a leaking vehicle.

Originally we intended to get a new vehicle next spring, but the first real rain of autumn quickly changed our minds. I had completely forgotten that the back hatch had developed a leak. We didn’t really feel like dealing with the issue for another Humboldt winter, so I started searching in earnest.

We settled on a Honda Odyssey as our desired vehicle. I spent six hours on Sunday looking at craigslist ads and listings at dealerships. As suspected, there weren’t really any options for used Odysseys in the price, mileage, and year ranges we were interested in. I expanded the search to Sacramento, the Bay Area, and as far south and Los Angeles and San Diego. We found a few promising options near the Bay, and I decided to hit the road this week to take a look.

I worked a half day Tuesday and set up two later afternoon appointments to test drive a couple vans in Sonoma and Marin counties. I would then head to East Bay the following morning to take a look at one more that my wife and I really liked. After lunch I grabbed the checkbook, visited the bank, and then hit the road.

As I was backing out of the credit union parking lot, my phone buzzed. Highway 101 was closed due to a truck crash and fuel spill. Of course. This happens every single time.

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Rest stop in Red Bluff.

So Highway 36 it was. This was gonna cost a lot of time and make me miss all the appointments I had made. Three winding hours later I was finally in Red Bluff. After gassing up and checking some local listings, I took off toward Chico to look at a 2010 Odyssey. Just before dark I arrived to find that the vehicle had just been sold. Strike one.

Booking a hotel in the North Bay (that helped fulfill my Fall IHG Accelerate promotion), I figured I would show up bright and early in Walnut Creek to make sure the next one didn’t get away from me. Arriving precisely at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, I inquired about the second van, only to find that it had sold the previous evening. Strike two.

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First one I test drove. Had an awful steering wobble.

So it was on to the third dealership, which was luckily also in Walnut Creek. They had a decently priced 2013 Odyssey LX that looked fantastic. The body and interior were in pristine shape, but the test drive went poorly. The steering had a major wobble over 45 mph. I decided to move on.

I examined and drove two more vans in Hayward, and struck out on both of those as well. Neither felt right and both were pricey. Then I zipped across the San Mateo bridge to try and look at another, and finally it was back to Oakland. By this point it was 4:00 p.m. and I was frustrated.

The last van was a lovely, silver 2012 Odyssey LX, and the asking price was on the very low end of the Kelley Blue Book range. After a test drive and examination, I was feeling good about this one. Then the CarFax showed it had been in a minor accident. The salesman and sales manager assured me everything was fine. The front end body work looked very good. I never would have known. But I still had some reservations.

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The final pick. So happy I finally found one.

An hour of indecision later, after multiple phone calls and a lot of discussion with family, I finally decided that the price was right and I should pull the trigger. Our old minivan, the champ that had just navigated 36 and nearly 500 miles of California with nary a problem, was put out to pasture for ~$270 trade-in value. It would be headed to the auction. Another hour later I was driving away in the Odyssey. My second night was spent at the Sheraton Petaluma, and I made it home around noon the next day.

It was a trek of two days and two nights, but it was successful. A third-party inspection of the van by a local dealer resulted in nearly a clean slate, and the couple problems uncovered were very minor. We are happy with the purchase. Let’s just hope that the pace of the next road trip is a bit slower and less stressful.

Changes Coming To BofA Credit Card Churning?

One of the best credit card opportunities out there has long been the ability to get a new Alaska Airlines Visa frequently. Unlike Citi, Chase, and Amex, Bank of America does not have any time restrictions between when you can receive sign up bonuses.

But is that changing? Shawn at Miles To Memories wrote about his recent BofA denial and that he is surmising Bank of America may be making changes to their approval rules. I can’t say I would blame BofA for closing this lucrative Alaska deal. I hear so many people talk about it that I know it is only a matter of time until they implement rules similar to those of the other big banks.

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The experience that my wife and I had recently with BofA is mixed. I applied for and received my second Alaska Visa card on 8/23/16. This was with two open accounts with Bank of America, one of which was another Alaska Visa card. The system gave me an instant approval.

Contrasting this is my wife’s denial. She has one BofA Alaska card, and we applied her for a Virgin Atlantic Visa with a 90,000 mile sign-up deal. Instant rejection. I was surprised. At the time I suspected that it was due to her lack of account history with BofA and that future applications might more likely be approved.

But Shawn’s experience gives me pause. My wife received the same letter that he received. The difference with us is that she didn’t already have another Alaska card. I cannot imagine that Bank of America would restrict you to a single card product. That seems like it would turn away far too much business. But is that what is looming? I will be watching this closely.

H/T: Miles to Memories

Dreaming Of Guatemala

Jungle. Volcanoes. Wonderfully friendly people. My trip to Guatemala in July 2015 is one that I will remember forever, and hopefully is the first of many. Among all the mission trips of which I have been a part, I will venture to say it was my favorite. Our team was a family. Our Guatemalan brothers and sisters welcomed us with warm hospitality and open arms. It was a piece of what I wish the body of Christ was like all the time. The longing to return hits me hard even as I write this.

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Some of the summer 2015 mission team with kids from Los Ocotes.

My whole experience has gotten me thinking. Why does it take a mission trip to a foreign country for the world to seem clearer? It’s like reality comes sharply into focus for a few seconds, and then everything goes fuzzy again. In those brief moments of clarity I understand exactly how I should be living. My heart is opened to God’s word and Spirit in a much deeper way, and I want the world around me to simply stop so I can enjoy that moment forever. I really hope this is a small taste of what heaven is like.

Then the questions flood my mind. Why is it so difficult to maintain this same perspective at home? Why do I not have the same close fellowship with the Lord at all times? Why do I so easily let work and other obligations fill my day and cloud my thinking?

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Living for Christ is an everyday pursuit. The Lord’s words were not just ‘pick up your cross’, but ‘pick up your cross daily’, at least in Luke’s account. That single word adds so much more depth to the meaning. Our battle is a daily struggle. We must seek Him each and every day. We must press onward, never turning back.

I can honestly say that I do not pursue Him as I ought. The desire ebbs and flows. My mind often wanders in my daily reading of scripture. Other pursuits crowd out my relationship with my Lord. I should not be so. There is no greater pursuit in life than to know and be known by the Lord of the universe.

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Los Ocotes

Which makes me appreciate the moments of clarity. I long for the sweetness again that my time in Guatemala brought. I wish to experience it again, and this time to share it with my wife. I honestly expect that once we have raised a family and are in the later years of our lives, that we will end up on the mission field in some corner of the globe.

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Kids at school near Zacapa

I had hoped to travel to Guatemala again this year, and not just because I want to take another trip. I want to enjoy the fellowship with my Guatemalan brothers and sisters again. I want to sit and talk with Roby, a young man I connected with last summer. We talk often via chat, but it isn’t the same as talking in person in a mix broken Spanish and English. I had hoped to visit him this November, but things aren’t working out.

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At another school near Zacapa

Lord willing we will return in 2017 with our church’s team.

Most photos courtesy of Jen Mrotzek.

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