Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Page 2 of 35

Hiking Table Rock near Medford, Oregon

Hiking is one of the primary activities to which I default when traveling. It is enjoyable, it lets you explore a new place, and it’s (nearly always) free. If a true hike isn’t available, a walk through a new city will do nearly as well.

Last weekend my brother-in-law and I took a quick vacation to southern Oregon. The first day included seeing Crater Lake, and the second day included two hikes, one of which was up Lower Table Rock near Medford.

Preparing to hike Table Rock

Our original plan was to hike Table rock mid-morning, but given the heat, we decided to swap our itinerary around. We would head out to hike near Lake of the Woods (cooler, and at a much higher altitude) during the morning. Our hike up Table Rock was then slated for the evening.

I looked up how to get to Table Rock using Google Maps. The route is pretty simple. You can get to Table Rock Road easily from the Highway 62 exit, heading north toward Crater Lake. Immediately turn left onto Biddle Road, as if you are heading to the Rogue Valley Airport. Then make a right when you intersect with Table Rock Road.

You continue on this road for a few miles before turning onto Wheeler Road, right along the base of Lower Table Rock.

hiking table rock medford

The trailhead was pretty easy to find, although I did initially blast by the turn off for Wheeler Road and had to turn around. It was still pretty warm when we arrived, but I knew things would get better as we climbed. I was *so* glad we didn’t hike Table Rock in the middle of the day!!

Hiking Table Rock

Looking up at Table Rock above us, I knew the hike was going to be moderately strenuous. The trail climbs quickly from the trailhead. There are some switchbacks, but at other times it’s simply a steep ascent. I didn’t realize how steep it was until we were heading down and I was trying not to lose my footing on the gravel path.

The lower part of the trail is through oak woodland. There were some wildflowers, although we were likely past the best of their display.

Soon we were under some larger trees, and unfortunately sheltered from the much-appreciated breeze. The switchbacks up the hill continued, and I couldn’t wait to break out on top of Table Rock.

Poison oak is abundant along the trail.  The trail is wide enough that brushing up against it shouldn’t be a concern, but definitely take note.

Top of Table Rock

A little over halfway through the hike we reached the top of Table Rock. The hard part was over. Now we just had a long stretch of flat trail that led us to the edge of the rock overlooking the Rogue Valley and Medford. The breeze at the top was also wonderful!

It took us another 15 minutes or so to reach the edge of Table Rock. The views were spectacular! Off to the east you could see the volcanic cone of Mount McLoughlin, and out to the west the Rogue Valley. Medford was in the middle, off in the distance.

We just sat and took everything in for several minutes. The temperature was now perfect, hovering in the upper 70s.

If I lived here, I’d definitely be hiking Table Rock routinely. Actually, who am I kidding? I probably wouldn’t. I hardly hike the redwoods anymore, and those are basically at my doorstep all the time.

Since my phone lacks panorama capability, I had to make do with a video. I’m desperately in need of a new smartphone so I can actually take some decent photos.

Heading down

The trip down was substantially easier than our trek up. We made our way back along the flat trail on top of Table Rock. As the sun was getting lower on the horizon, we had a little bit of fun with the shadows.

Soon enough we were heading back down the steep trail. I took a picture of Upper Table Rock before the sun dropped below the horizon completely.

It didn’t take long to reach the trailhead again. All in all, the hike was maybe 2 hours. We could have explored more of the top of Table Rock, but we had a date at Cold Stone that we couldn’t miss.

Conclusion

Hiking Table Rock should definitely be on your list if you plan to spend any time in or near Medford, Oregon. It is a great experience, and the view of the valley is gorgeous. The hike is also not very long, and easily doable in under a half day. Along with Crater Lake, the Oregon Caves, and historic Jacksonville, there is plenty to do and see in southern Oregon. Hopefully you can enjoy a trip to the area someday!

5 of the Best No Fee Credit Cards for Travel

Many people balk at the idea of paying an annual fee for a credit card. I’d like to convince you that fees aren’t all bad, especially if you are getting great value for even a $95 fee. But if you want to jump into the “travel hacking” world without paying a fee, consider one of these best no fee credit cards.

Technically, I’ll still suggest getting a Chase Sapphire Preferred as your first card. It’s introductory fee is $0 for the first year, so there really isn’t a downside. You’ll have 12 months to decide if you want to pay the fee. But if you want to start with something truly free, these are some of the best no fee credit cards you can get:

Chase Freedom Unlimited

The Chase Freedom Unlimited card is one of the best no fee credit cards if you are new to this hobby. The card typically carries a sign up bonus of $150 (really 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points), and it earns 1.5 Ultimate Rewards (UR) points on all purchases.

If you have a premium Chase card (Sapphire Preferred, Ink Preferred, Sapphire Reserve), you can transfer these points to one of these cards and then to travel partners. You can also use them to book travel directly through the Chase travel portal. If you don’t have a premium card, you can simply use them for cash back.

The points have substantially more value when redeemed for travel, which I one reason I suggest getting a Chase Sapphire Preferred card. But if you are adverse to fees, the Chase Freedom Unlimited is a decent card.

American Express EveryDay

The American Express Everyday card shines as the best no fee credit card for travel that actually earns transferable points. It typically comes with a sign up bonus of 10,000 points after $1,000 in spending, but occasionally you can find a higher offer. Obviously, getting a higher bonus is great since you can only get it once due to Amex’s once-per-lifetime bonus limit.

The American Express EveryDay card earns 2x points per dollar at supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year of spending. It earns 1x on all other purchases. However, if you make at least 20 purchases in your billing cycle, you will earn an additional 20% bonus on your points. This equals up to 2.4 points per dollar spent on supermarket purchases, which is quite good.

If you do a lot of spending at supermarkets, the EveryDay Preferred may be the better way to go. But it has a fee.

Chase Freedom

The Chase Freedom card is similar to the Chase Freedom Unlimited, except it earns 5 UR points per dollar in quarterly rotating categories. It earns 1x points on all other purchases. The quarterly categories are capped at $1,500 in spending, which mean you can earn a maximum of 7,500 UR points at the bonus rate each quarter.

Again, the Ultimate Rewards earned from the Chase Freedom card can only be used for travel if you have one of the premium cards. You can also transfer them to the account of someone in your household if you are an authorized user on one of their premium cards.

Best no fee credit cards

Citi DoubleCash

While not specifically a travel credit card, the Citi DoubleCash card is one you should consider adding to your wallet. The card doesn’t offer a sign up bonus, but is does offer unlimited 2% cash back on all purchases. The earning is split: 1% when you buy, 1% when you pay. Rewards hit your account at the end of each statement cycle.

Often when I can’t decide what travel card to use for spending in a non-bonus category, I’ll simply pull out my DoubleCash. It’s hard to beat straight 2% cash back (although my SPG American Express gets some love as well, but it *does* have a fee).

Which of the best no fee credit cards should you get first?

Out of these best no fee credit cards, the only one with which you can earn flexible, transferable points is the American Express EveryDay card. It is one of the cards I suggest getting and keeping, especially considering American Express’ “once per lifetime” limit on credit card bonuses.

However, it may not be the best choice as a first card for a couple reasons. First, you may want to get Chase cards first due to the Chase “5/24” rule (SEE: Trying to Understand the Chase 5/24 Rule). Second, the Freedom or Freedom Unlimited will provide better value in the long run if you ever get a premium Chase card. I’ll reiterate that the Chase cards must both be paired with a premium card to get the full value out of the points. Otherwise you’re just looking at them as cash back cards.

Remember to use credit cards responsibly. The rewards you earn are only worth it if you pay your balance in full and on time every month (SEE: The 5 Commandments of Travel Credit Cards – or really any credit card).

Don’t be Afraid to Call the Bank!

I have a bad habit of putting off bank calls. For instance, I still haven’t called Banco Popular to unfreeze my Avianca Vuela Visa card (SEE: Lucrative Offer! New Avianca LifeMiles Credit Cards). Goes to show how much I use it. The one time I went to make a large purchase out of area, the bank declined it. I got a letter within a week asking me to call. Over two months later, I still haven’t.

Bank calls can be intimidating. And long. And often frustrating. I hate being placed on hold for more than a few minutes.

Today’s call was different. I had a bit of time to kill this evening, so I figured I’d contact American Express regarding my Starwood Preferred Guest personal card. I’ve been considering canceling it, simply to make room for another card. Ever since I got my business SPG Amex (SEE: Getting My First Business Credit Card), I have hardly used the personal one.

Canceling a card turns into free money

I was pleasantly surprised when I was on hold for maybe a minute before getting a helpful agent. Since she didn’t specialize in card cancellations, she transferred me to another specialist who did. He was competent and helpful.

After expressing my desire to cancel my personal SPG card, he asked me to hold for a minute. In no time at all he was back with an offer for a $100 statement credit. This was a pleasant surprise. I had expected a small number of Starpoints to be offered. But $100? I’ll take it.

He went on to explain that there were no strings attached. American Express was basically offering me $100, free and clear. He went so far as to mention that if I canceled my card come July (when me fee is due), I’d still keep the credit. I’m not sure if American Express would want him explicitly alerting me to that fact…

Conclusion: call the bank more often

My takeaway is that I shouldn’t shy away from calling the card issuer. Banks try to do what they can to keep customers. I’ve put a good amount of spending on my American Express cards in the past couple years, so that may be one of the factors that triggered the offer.

In any case, don’t be shy about calling, especially when an annual fee comes due. The bank may work with you to either reduce it (by a statement credit offset) or make it worth your while in other ways, such as extra points. These are called “retention offers”. I’m going to do my best to capitalize on more of them!

Featured image courtesy of Infrogmation under CC 2.0 license

Join Me for a Second Travel Hacking Seminar!

Back in March I offered a free seminar to friends and family (SEE: Reserve a Seat at the First Humboldt Travel Hacking Seminar). A few people asked me if I would hold a second one, and the answer was “most likely yes.” Originally, I had hoped to plan a second one during early May. Although that window has now come and gone, I have now arranged it for early June. Here are the details:

  • Date: Monday, June 5, 2017
  • Time: 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (might run long…last time did)
  • Venue: Ferndale Pizza Company (607 Main Street, Ferndale)
  • Format: Presentation will run about 90 minutes, then Q&A (as well as some Q&A mixed in).
  • Other: Hopefully we’ll have refreshments like last time (cookies and coffee/water)!

The seminar is free, not because the info isn’t valuable, but I don’t want to charge for a starter-level event like this. I really enjoy helping people save money on travel!!

Please *do* RSVP via this link, if you’re planning on attending. Please feel free to contact me with any questions before the event.

Hope to see you all there!!

West Coast Magic with Alaska Miles: A Primer

One of my favorite things in this hobby is figuring out how to maximize my miles. Earning miles via credit cards is easy enough, but they are only as valuable as you make them.

Alaska MileagePlan is one of my favorite award programs. Back in late 2016, they rolled out new distance-based awards, both reducing the price on many awards and raising the “cap” on others in high demand. The new awards are called a hop, skip, jump, and leap, based on the distance traveled. Here’s the chart:

Overall, I think consumers came out slightly ahead. Especially if they know how to maximize Alaska’s award routing rules. Here are some great options to explore with your Alaska miles:

Scenario 1: The one-way “round-trip”

One of the most unique things about Alaska Airlines award tickets is that they offer a stopover on a one-way award. Granted, the stopover has to be in one of their hubs, or a hub of a partner. I’ve found a few awards that break this rule, but it generally holds true.

However, if you’re interested in traveling to one of their hubs (think Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Anchorage), you can often use this to your advantage.

Consider for a second that you want to visit Seattle from the Silicon Valley. At a distance of 696 miles from San Jose, a one-way flight *barely* qualifies for the lowest level Alaska award of 5,000 miles. But you can actually book a “round-trip” on a one-way ticket, if you’re willing to get creative.

Instead of booking a round-trip award to and from San Jose for a total of 10,000 miles, use the multi-search tool to add a different, but (sorta) close return airport, say Reno, Nevada. Looks like you even get to fly through Boise, for a total flight distance of 1,696 flown miles.

You’d expect this ticket to price out at 10,000 miles, given the flight distance. But it turns out Alaska prices award tickets on their own metal simply by distance between origin and destination! Because Reno and SJC are much less than 700 miles apart, this award will price out a 5,000 miles at the lowest level!

Now you just have to get yourself home to San Jose from Reno.  You could easily catch a cheap flight back, or maybe take Amtrak.

Sure, this may not be a desirable trip for many people, but what if you wanted to see Tahoe for a bit before heading back to the Bay? It could be just the ticket for you. You’re only looking at 5,000 miles and $70 for a two-stop vacation!

I’m mainly using this example as an illustration, although my wife and I did fly a “one-way” award from Arcata to the Bay Area, with a convenient stop in Portland to meet up with our in-laws (SEE: The Pacific Northwest Stopover Trick).

Scenario 2: The two-stop hop (aka the “in-laws”)

I’ve definitely had my in-laws in mind when considering some of the potential in the Alaska program. My mother-in-law often visits family in San Diego, typically flying out of the tiny Sonoma County (STS) airport. Since the route is under 700 miles, it prices out at 5,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles one-way.

But what if she and my father-in-law want to visit, say, Seattle for a few days, before heading to sunny southern California?

Utilizing Alaska’s amazing stopover on one-way tickets, you can actually book STS-SEA-SAN as a one-way ticket for the same 5,000 miles!

This is especially crazy given that the SEA-SAN flight distance is 1,050 miles and rings in at 7,500 award miles when booked by itself. Again, Alaska actually prices it based on the STS-SAN distance.

Tack on a cheap one-way, or another 5,000 mile award flight back to STS from San Diego, and you have a two destination vacation for a mere 10,000 miles. Not sure you can beat that.

Like the San Jose to Reno example, all you need to find is a cheap ticket back to Santa Rosa. Or you can burn another 5,000 miles, which will probably be worth it in this case. It’s still 10,000 miles for a two-destination vacation!

Scenario 3: The home “stopover”

Things get even more creative if you live in one of Alaska Airlines’ main hubs. Especially Seattle or Portland. The award routing rules are extremely advantageous.

Consider the scenario where you are taking two vacations in the western U.S. in the next several months. Say, one to San Francisco and the other to Las Vegas.

Instead of booking two round-trip awards, book a one-way for your first leg. Cash tickets for this route are competitive, so they may be the way to go instead.

Next, book your return, but combine it with your outbound to Las Vegas on the same one-way award (use the multi-city search tool). Bingo. Your “stopover” is now your several weeks at home between trips. And it is a crazy cheap 5,000 miles!

Now all you have to do is book your final leg and you’ve saved yourself up to 7,500 Alaska miles, the normal price of a SEA-LAS flight! Maybe later in the year you have a trip to Denver and another to Salt Lake City. You can pull this stunt again!

Scenario 4: Hawaii and a transcon on the same one-way

Let’s take the home stopover one step further. While useful before, this trick becomes even more lucrative if you combine a Hawaii trip with a transcontinental flight. For this example I still have to assume you live in an Alaska hub.

Imagine for a moment that you’re booking an award to Hawaii. If you’re located on the West Coast (I’m assuming you live in Seattle), hopefully you’re considering using British Airways Avios. They are generally the best currency for flying West Coast to Hawaii.

But what if you have a trip planned to the Big Apple a month after your Hawaii trip? Hold those Avios for a moment. Alaska miles will get you further, again with their amazing stopover.

If you plan this right, you can essentially get *both* one-way tickets on the same award, spanning two different trips.

Plan your outbound as a one-way with Avios (12,500 per ticket), and then plan your inbound as a one-way Alaska award for 17,500 MileagePlan miles. Add in a stopover in Seattle that spans your time at home.

Voila. You now have a one-way ticket back home from Hawaii, and then a one-way ticket to NYC, all for the less than a single flight to Hawaii would cost with many other mileage currencies.

Is it an awful red-eye? Yes. But for 17,500 miles, you can’t really complain (I’m sure you can find better flights if you book far in advance). Here’s another:

Honolulu back home to San Jose, before taking off for Alaska on another adventure.

Scenario 5: Rural Alaska

Flying to rural Alaska doesn’t really require any interesting “hacks” per se, but I find it is a fantastic use of Alaska miles. You can head to Barrow to experience 24-hour daylight, or maybe go hiking in Nome.

I mention rural Alaska since cash tickets are often super expensive. Consider this round trip between the Bay Area and Dutch Harbor. You’ll almost certainly spend over $1,000 on a cash ticket, if not closer to $1,500. You can fly the same trip for a mere 25,000 MileagePlan miles round-trip. Consider hanging out in Anchorage for a few days as well with your free stopover.

Frustratingly, there is far less award space available at the lowest level than there was last year. Because Alaska offers variable award pricing, you’ll probably end up paying more like 20,000 miles for the ticket. Still, this can make sense for destinations in rural Alaska that cost a ridiculous amount in cash.

A few issues

Annoyingly, Alaska Airlines still doesn’t recognize Bay Area airports as a “hub” for award routing stopover purposes under most circumstances. Given that the airline has bought Virgin America, I wish they would change this.

The system also knows some airports are co-located. You can’t book a “one-way” ticket from SFO to Oakland with a stop in Portland. Nor can you even return to Sacramento or Santa Rosa from the Bay. MileagePlan would be a gold mine if their system allowed these tickets.

Conclusion

I hope this has been useful in showing you how to unlock the potential of Alaska miles. Overall, the award price changes to the Alaska program have been good, but there are some quirks. Personally, I wish they would price awards on PenAir out of Arcata airport better.

If you’re not interested in domestic travel, there are a number of possibilities for using Alaska miles for some great premium products, like JAL and Cathay Pacific to Asia, and AirFrance and KLM to Europe. Business class awards to India on Emirates are also a decent deal.

Header image courtesy of Frank Kovalcheck under CC 2.0 license

« Older posts Newer posts »