Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: July 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Easy 500 United Miles For Using Visa Checkout

Yesterday I noticed a new promotion on United’s website, offering 500 United MileagePlus miles for enrolling in Visa checkout. The offer is only available to MileagePlus Visa cardholders. To take advantage of the promotion, visit the promo website, enter your United MileagePlus number, and then proceed to either log into your Visa Checkout account or create a new account.

The terms of the promotion offer 500 miles for enrolling in Visa Checkout with a United MileagePlus Visa and making a purchase of at least $5, using your newly enrolled MileagePlus Visa, within 15 days of enrolling. What is not clear to me is if only truly new accounts are eligible for the promotion, or if existing accounts are eligible if the MileagePlus Visa card added is new to the account. The offer is valid through 09/30/2016, so take advantage of it if you can.

When You Take The Wrong Train

Navigation is my thing. When I am planning a trip anywhere new, I research the local transit options extensively, finding routes, timetables, and stop locations, whether it is for bus, metro, train, or other. Most of the essentials end up pasted in a travel notebook, a nice hard copy for when I don’t have wifi access. Getting to wherever we are going becomes a fairly easy and efficient endeavor.

The real adventure begins when all of that gets tossed out the window. And I mean all. A few days ago I made probably the biggest local transit mistake I ever have, and my wife was along for the ride. We had spent a wonderful day out in Tivoli, visiting the exquisite gardens of the Villa d’Este and enjoying the old town. As an aside, the Villa is UNESCO listed and completely worth a day trip out to Tivoli to visit, if you are ever in the Rome area.


Villa d’Este Tivoli was lovely, but I wish I could have paid for the entrance tickets with plastic.

We just had one little hiccup: the entrance fee for the Villa completely cleaned us out of our remaining cash. I even had to ask my wife to fork over her bathroom money (which you need in Italy). We were literally down to 0,27€.

Luckily, lunch was payable by plastic, and we already had return tickets in hand. At least, partial return tickets. The train dumped us at Tiburtina station in Rome, and I then had to figure out how to get us back to the hotel. We had yet to meet a metro kiosk that accepted credit card, so our chances were slim that we would be able to get back to the hotel without pulling some more cash out of the ATM.

Which I was loathe to do, because it would drop our balance below the amount needed to waive the $12 monthly fee. I had been meaning to schedule an ACH transfer from one bank to the other to add to our balance, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. Bad move. I can just hear my dad quoting the rule of the 5 Ps.

But then I had a thought: I was 99% certain our metro station shared a platform with the local rail, so maybe I could find a TrenItalia ticket from Roma Tiburtina to EUR Magliana. Then I could use my plastic. Thirty seconds later I was at the kiosk, punching away. No ticket popped up when I entered ‘EUR Magliana’, so I just tried ‘Magliana’. Bingo. A ticket showed from Tiburtina to Magliana, leaving in twenty minutes, for a whopping 1€ per person. This looked like exactly what we needed.

I briefly wondered if ‘Magliana’ and ‘EUR Magliana’ might not be the same station, but looking at the timing and price of the fare, it made sense that we would just be headed across Rome. With a swipe of my card, I paid the 2€ to get my wife and I right back near our hotel. Our lack of cash issue could be solved later.

Or so I thought. The train departed on time, and roughly half an hour later the announcement came on that we were arriving at Magliana station. I instantly knew there was a problem. The landmarks didn’t look right, and the station we were pulling into wasn’t the same as the metro station. We got off, and I tried to get my bearings. Only one building was recognizable, one we could see from our hotel window. Except it appeared we were on the opposite side of it from our hotel. And based on the topography, we were also across the Tiber river. My guesstimate was that the hotel was a solid mile away. Not good, but also not terrible.

With no map at the train station, and the one in my backpack useless (we were beyond the areas I had studied and printed), we headed down the road in the direction I figured should be toward our hotel. Checking the map at the first bus stop we encountered, my suspicions we confirmed. We were across the river and a good distance from the EUR Magliana station. And even further from our hotel.

The only option was to hoof it. We had a lot of daylight left, and I figured it would be a good hour back to the hotel. The issue I was most worried about was crossing the Tiber. I knew of only one bridge in the area, and it was pretty much part of a highway. Traversing that did not sound like fun, and my wife was already unnerved about walking down the narrow roads with no sidewalk.

But then we had a stroke of luck. One of the bus stops we encountered had the 771 route listed, which I knew passed somewhere near our hotel. Sure enough, it had the stop at the metro station. But the direction didn’t seem right to me, and we were still out of cash. And I had no idea if or when the next one might come by on a Sunday.

We kept walking, and the road got both busier and harder to walk along. The sidewalk was long gone, and the shoulder was disappearing as well. Crossing an overpass, we saw another bus stop in the distance, and this one had two people waiting at it.

Now, my Italian isn’t very good. Actually, it’s pretty nonexistent. With a decent grasp of Spanish, I can fake my way through reading it, but conversing in it is next to impossible. When we reached the couple at the bus stop, I started in with ‘Parlo inglese?’. The answer was a quick ‘No’. This was gonna be tough.

I spent the next 5 minutes trying to confirm that we could get back near our hotel on the 771 bus that day. What I gathered from the sad excuse for a conversation was: (a) Italian was also not the native language of this couple, (b) the 771 was running on Sunday (good news), and (c) I think he was telling me to take the 128 instead (which made no sense).

Trusting the route I knew, I decided we would jump on the 771 when it arrived. Without tickets. If the transit police were riding this route, this was going to cost us far more than any ATM or account fees. Ten minutes later it pulled up, and two stops down the road we literally saw our hotel go by. Stepping off at the next stop, we were quite thankful to be back.

sheraton_roma front

The Sheraton Roma was a welcome sight after our little misadventure.

The bus ride revealed that the route over the river would have included some treacherous walking, and I was very thankful that we hadn’t attempted it. The bus back was a life saver.

Luckily the transit police didn’t catch us. To ease both our consciences regarding our unpaid bus hop, we decided to buy two extra tickets once we had some cash, and simply toss them. Fair enough in my book.

All said and done, we saved ~$6, but it cost us over an hour, and caused us more than a little headache. Looking back, I would have happily have pulled some cash from an ATM instead. Lesson: Be prepared and go with what is familiar. Unless your willing to risk a spontaneous adventure.

San Marino In 11 Photos

San Marino has long been on my list of places that intrigue me. When I was about 13 years old, my parents got me the Encyclopedia of World Geography, and I pretty much read it cover to cover. It was through that book that I was introduced to the tiny Republic of San Marino. I had no clue that there was another entire country situated entirely within Italy in addition to The Vatican. As I read, the history fascinated me, and the few photos shown in the book were stunning.

An tiny enclave within Italy, San Marino is the world’s oldest surviving republic. According to tradition, San Marino was founded in the 4th century by Saint Marinus and a group of christians seeking to escape persecution.

The old city of San Marino, situated high on Monte Titano, is near the middle of the country. It was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 2008.

Less than a week ago I got to visit this insanely cool country and walk its streets! I figured I would share some of the highlights my wife and I captured through the lens of our camera. Enjoy.


View to the northwest of the first tower.

san_marino adriatic_view

Borgo Maggiore and Serravalle in the foreground, Rimini and the Adriatic in the distance.

san_marino church

Basilica di San Marino.

san_marino cross

View to the west toward Tuscany. 

san_marino gate

One of the gates into the old city.

san_marino edge_of_world

Second tower. Feels like the top of the world.

san_marino crest

San Marino Coat Of Arms.

san_marino old_city

Citta di San San Marino from above.

san_marino crossbowmen

Sammarinesi Crossbowmen Federation.

san_marino first_tower

Fantastic view of the first tower from the second tower.

Why We Are Using Our BarclayCard Arrival+ MasterCard In Europe This Summer

For just over a week now, my wife and I have been on an extended European adventure. We have visited the French Riviera, Milan, and are currently in San Marino, with more to come, including Rome, Florence, and Ireland. You can read a bit more about ur plans here. As part of our preparation for the trip, I settled on a pared-down set of credit cards for use while across the pond. Normally I carry 8-12 in my wallet at any given time, and I trimmed us down to only 6 between the two of us. The main reason is security; I don’t want to have to call too many banks to cancel a bunch of cards if one of our wallets is stolen. Right now we would have to call Amex and Barclays if mine was taken, and Chase if hers. Let’s hope this planning is unnecessary.


The Hyatt card stayed home, although we had two Hyatt stays. Rooms were paid with points.

Each card was selected for specific reasons. We are staying at hotels with 4 different major chains, so I was initially thinking we would bring each of those co-branded cards. However, I decided to only bring a Hilton card and my SPG card. I figured any extras could be purchased with one of our other cards at the Hyatt and IHG hotels. Card number 3 is my United MileagePlus Explorer, only because we are still finishing the sign-up bonus. Kelsey’s Chase Sapphire was selected as the 4th because it has a large credit limit and has 2x on travel purchases. Cards 5 and 6 are her BarclayCard Arrival+ and my no-fee Arrival.

The card du jour for this trip will certainly be my wife’s BarclayCard Arrival+ MasterCard. She just recently obtained it, and we still need to hit the spending bonus (for 40,000 “miles” that we will use to cover a hotel night and our train travel in Italy). This was an important enough reason to bring it along, but there are three other ways in which it is helpful:

  1. Chip + Pin Support. Credit card transactions in Europe (and a whole lot of the rest of the world) use a different technology than we do in the United States. Many U.S. cards still use the old mag-stripe technology, although newer ones are chip-enabled. However, although U.S. cards now have a chip, they are chip-and-signature. This means that although transactions are processed using the chip (instead of the mag-stipe), they still only require the signature of the customer. European cards use chip-and-pin technology. Instead of a cardholder signature, they require entry of a pin code (like a U.S. debit card at an ATM). Most U.S. cards are not pin enabled. This normally isn’t all that much of a problem in Europe because both mag-stripe and chip-and-signature technology usually work just fine for the bulk of transactions. However, there are some automated kiosks and other merchants that only accept chip-and-pin cards. This makes the BarclayCard Arrival+ a great card to have because it is chip and pin enabled. We already ran into a Milan metro kiosk that wouldn’t process my Chase Visa.
  2. No Foreign Transaction Fees. We have quite a few cards now with hits perk, so this isn’t really a make-or-break issue. We could just as easily use the Chase Sapphire Preferred. However, even among cards with no foreign transaction fees, some win out over others. Which brings me to point number three…
  3. Lower MasterCard Exchange Rates. One thing I didn’t know until this past week was that the different credit processing companies (Visa, Amex, MasterCard, etc.) have different currency exchange rates. These can fluctuate daily, and one may be better than another at any given time. From a few sources, I have heard that MasterCard’s exchange rates are on average the best, although this may or may not be the case on any given day. Our own experience has shown them to be essentially equal. Doing the math on our purchases over the last few days, the Visa and MasterCard rates are essentially the same (0.900 EUR per USD). I may run receipts from a few more dates for fun as the trip progresses to see if MasterCard is indeed the better option. The savings are still small, however, and they are completely negated when I make stupid purchases.

The BarclayCard Arrival+ is a decent card to have in your wallet for international travel. I don’t consider it a great card overall (you can find no-fee 2% cash back cards), but the benefits it provides while overseas may help make it worth the premium. Plus, having either it or the no-fee version allows for some extra point accrual through the BarclayCard travel community.

Making Stupid Travel Purchases

While in Cannes, France, I thought it would be wise to stock up on stamps. We were mailing a bunch of postcards to our family and friends, and I knew that we would be sending a dozen or two more. So I asked for 20 stamps to start us off. We promptly used 10, and I figured that the next 10 would hold us another week. Except I forgot one detail: we were leaving France. With the bulk of Europe using the Euro and the seamless inter-country transit, it completely slipped my mind that the countries don’t use the same postal system!

So now I am the proud owner of 10 French international stamps that we will likely never use, at a cost ~$14. I hate it when I make unnecessary purchases that negate all the ways in which we save money while traveling, but sometimes they happen. You live and learn.

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