Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Report: Without You, There is No Us

If you have incurable wanderlust like I do, there are probably few places in the world that aren't on your "to visit" list. Only one place, though, is on there because it's completely inaccessible to outsiders. That place is North Korea. But it wasn't inaccessible to the author of Without You, There is No Us.

Suki Kim, the author, is a Korean-American who traveled to North Korea in 2011 and posed as a Christian missionary in order to teach English at an all-boys college in Pyongyang. This book recounts her experiences over those six months.

I was most struck by the author's descriptions of the ignorance she faced. Her students are there to study technology and science, but they have no knowledge of the internet. They are supposed to be the best and the brightest in the country, but they struggle to write a basic essay. They struggle with the concept of a thesis statement because they've never had to support their thoughts with evidence. Their ignorance is not their fault, though; it is the natural result of a lifetime of censorship by the Great Leader they revere as a God and as a father figure.

The author describes the omnipresence of censorship and monitoring. Her government-assigned monitor reads her emails, accompanies her on the rare trips off-campus, and even eavesdrops on what she says in her apartment. All lesson plans must be pre-approved by an anonymous group of administrators, and they can't contain any references to religion, democracy, or any Western ideas. The censorship is suffocating and breeds an intense paranoia and culture of fear, she says. Yet her students are cautiously curious about the outside world. They quietly confess to listening to rock n' roll, ask the author about her world travels, and watch a somehow-approved Harry Potter movie with awe.

The author often reflected on a dead-end relationship with a man back in New York, and I found that part of her story distracting. I also thought her anti-Christian views were a bit heavy-handed at times. I wanted to learn about North Korea and its people, and these other things just got in the way of that.

I would recommend this book if you are curious to get an authentic peek of daily life in North Korea. You won't be able to put it down. B+

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

How to Travel for Free: Part 3

In Part 1, I explained how to get started with travel miles, and in Part 2, I detailed how to most efficiently earn points. Now that you have a lot of points, I'm going to teach you how to spend them most wisely.

Everyone has different travel goals. Earning miles is relatively the same for everyone, but there are many strategies for redeeming your points most effectively because the definition of "most effectively" varies.. For example, I prefer to fly on economy tickets because I would rather take more trips for free than one awesome business class flight. I'm going to try to focus on general tips in this post, but understand that your strategy may differ depending on your goals.

Understand How Points Add Up
One of the most common mistakes people make is thinking that all points have the same value, but not all miles are really one mile. Let's say, for example, that you have accumulated 60,000 Ulimate Rewards points through Chase. Ultimate Reward points are worth one mile apiece and you earn a 20% bonus for purchasing through the Ultimate Rewards portal. So, if you have 60,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points, that will get you one free flight worth $720 through the Ultimate Rewards portal. Not bad, right? Not really. Instead of purchasing a flight through the Ultimate Rewards portal, you could transfer those points to United Airlines and get one free round-trip saver flight to Europe. I searched for a random flight from Chicago to Amsterdam in January, and here's what I came up with:

That's a round-trip, non-stop flight for 60,000 points and $52.70 in fees worth $1,181.60. That's a heck of a lot better than the $720 value you would've gotten through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

Take Advantage of Stopovers and Open-Jaws
Let's say you don't want to just go to Amsterdam on your Europe trip. Most airlines allow people to take multiple flights for the same amount of points through stopovers and open jaws. A stopover allows you to have a layover in one place that's longer than 24 hours but less than the full duration of your trip. If you want to spend 4 days in Amsterdam before continuing on to Barcelona, that would be a stopover. An open jaw means that your return departure point is not the same as your arrival point. If you fly from Chicago into Amsterdam, and then your return flight is Barcelona to Chicago, you have an open jaw. It's named that because it looks like an open mouth.

Every airline has a different policy. United permits 1 stopover and 2 open jaws per trip. So for 60,000 points, you could fly from Chicago to Amsterdam, spend a few days in the Netherlands, and then get back on a plane to Barcelona. But you want to see more of Spain, so from Barcelona, you hop on a train to Madrid. At the end of your trip, maybe you want to stop by and visit your family in the Detroit area before returning home to Chicago. Your final itinerary looks like this:

It still costs 60,000 miles, but this time, you're getting over $1,700 worth of airfare.

In this itinerary, you use your one stopover in Amsterdam, and your final destination is Barcelona. Then, on your way home, you leave from Madrid instead of Barcelona (open jaw #1) to arrive back in Detroit instead of Chicago (open jaw #2). You'll have to spend money on the train from Barcelona to Madrid and on your transportation back to Chicago from Detroit, but you get a lot more trip for your money.

Each airline has different policies regarding open jaws and stopovers. Some require them to be in the same region, some don't; some allow them on one-way flights, some don't. This post gives a pretty good summary of the rules on several major airlines.

Book Early
The surest way to land these great deals, though, is to book early. I prefer to fly on saver tickets because I can take more free flights. There are only so many saver tickets, though, and they go quickly. If you know you want to go to Europe next spring, you should start looking now. At first, Adam thought it was crazy when I wanted to book flights 9 months ahead of time, but once I showed him that flights were already starting to book up, he was thankful I was on top of things.

I hope the last 3 posts have given you a good idea of how to get on your way to traveling for free. Travel is my favorite hobby, and it's great knowing that it doesn't have to be an expensive one. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions. Happy earning!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How to Travel for Free: Part 2

Part 1 covered the basics of choosing a credit card. Once you have that credit card, you can start earning points! Easy, right? Yes, but these are some of my tried-and-true tips for getting the most bang for your travel-focused buck.

Understand Bonus Categories
Most regular credit cards give its users a standard 1 point per dollar spent, but most travel-focused credit cards offer higher return rates when you spend in certain categories. For example, we earn 2 points per dollar spent on travel and dining with our Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and 5 points per dollar spent on office supplies and phone, internet, and cable with our Chase Ink Plus Business card. Make sure you know what bonus categories your card(s) offers and use the right card for the right situation. I pay our Comcast and Verizon bills with my Chase Ink card and always using my Chase Sapphire Preferred card when we go out to eat or when I take a cab. I even buy gift cards at office supply stores with my Ink card that I then use for things like groceries, gas, and Amazon that won't earn me extra rewards.

Buy Everything Through a Portal
Bonus categories are great, but not every purchase qualifies for bonus points. However, that doesn't mean you're stuck earning 1 point per dollar on every purchase you make. Certain retailers partner with financial institutions, hotels, and/or airlines to give you extra points when you shop through their portals. Chase has its Ultimate Rewards portal, United has MileagePlus Shopping and MileagePlus Dining, etc. If you go to those websites, you can get extra points for online shopping. Need to buy a wedding gift for your cousin? Chase offers 3 points per dollar spent at Macy's. Mom's birthday coming up? You can get 20 points per dollar spent with FTD. If you sign up with Rewards Network, you can earn points toward your airline of choice by eating out at certain restaurants.

The best is when you can double up portal shopping with your award categories. I get 5x the points at office supply stores with my Chase Ink card, and I can also get 2 points per dollar at Staples and Office Max through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal for a total of 7 points per dollar spent. Or put your Rewards Network meal on your Chase Sapphire Preferred card for another 2 points per dollar.

Aside from sign-up bonuses, utilizing bonus categories and portal shopping are the most important components of travel hacking. My husband teases me when I inevitably remind him to use this credit card or to click through the portal, but this is where we get most of our points on a monthly basis. Last month alone, we earned 78% more points with bonus category and portal purchases than we would have if we just earned the standard 1 point per dollar.

Always Pay Your Balance in Full Every Month
At best, you're going to earn about 5% back in travel points through credit cards. If you don't pay your balance in full each month, you have to pay interest of 15-20%, which quickly cancels out any benefit you derived from points and then some. Credit card points are only worth it if you pay your balance off in full every month.

Join Airline and Hotel Loyalty Programs
Just because you're earning points through a credit card doesn't mean you have to sacrifice points from airlines and hotels. One of my favorite things about a non-brand-specific credit card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred is that it allows you to double-dip. For example, if I purchase a United flight on my Sapphire card, I get 2x points on travel for that purchase (3x if I book the flight through the Chase portal) plus United MileagePlus points for the ticket. You don't need to sign up for every rewards program out there right now, but as you stay in a hotel chain or fly various airlines, sign up for those programs.

Also, be aware of the possibility of crediting points across alliances. I mostly fly United, but for an upcoming trip to Asia, I have been trying to gather points for Singapore Airlines. Because both airlines are Star Alliance partners, I can have the points by flying United credited to my Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer account.

Stay tuned for Part 3, where you'll learn how to most effectively redeem all these points you've worked so hard to earn!

Monday, July 20, 2015

How to Travel for Free: Part 1

If you've read my blog or know me in real life, it's no secret that I love to travel and that I do it quite frequently. People often ask us how we can afford to take so many trips. While we do prioritize our budget toward trips, one big reason is that we get a lot of stuff for free.

Up until a couple of years ago, I didn't pay attention to anything other than finding the cheapest flight. I redeemed my credit card rewards for cash back on my monthly statement, and I always ignored emails about signing up for loyalty programs. Now, I realize how foolish I was. I was throwing away free money!

A couple of years ago, I discovered the points game, and I will never go back. If you want to travel for free, here's how to get started:

Find the Right Credit Card(s) for You
A good credit card is going to be the backbone of your travel hacking plan. Most people don't fly or stay in hotels that often, but we all have to spend money on things, and most of us use credit cards to do that. Why not earn valuable travel points on the things you're going to buy anyway? There are three major types of credit cards that offer travel rewards:
1) Program-Specific Cards: These cards are sponsored by one specific airline or hotel chain, and they will help you earn points for that airline or hotel chain. Typically, you'll earn a point for every dollar you spend on anything and then you'll earn additional points for the card's specific product. So, if you have the Starwood Preferred card, you'll earn extra bonus points when you charge your stay at a Starwood property. These are great cards for people who fly on the same airline or stay in the same hotel chain regularly because the points will quickly get you benefits in those places like free flights and hotel stays or even smaller things like free checked bags, lounge access, or free breakfast. The downside is the lack of flexibility. Delta miles won't do you any good if Delta doesn't fly to that place you want to go. That brings me to...
2) Flexible Rewards Cards: These cards earn points that can be redeemed with a variety of travel partners, and they typically earn you bonus points in specific spending categories. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card gets you double points on travel and restaurant charges, and Chase Freedom offers 5% cash back in rotating categories (This month, it's gas stations and Kohl's stores.). These cards are great for people who don't have any specific loyalties and just want to earn points toward travel generally. The downside is that you have to do a little more research and spend a little more time when it comes to redeeming your points.
3) Cash Back Cards: These cards earn you dollars instead of points that can be applied to reimburse yourself for charges you've made. If you don't travel often and want points that can be used to simply reduce your credit card balance, these cards are great. However, if your goal is travel, these cards won't get you the most bang for your buck.

Gauge the Sign-Up Bonuses
Once you identify which type(s) of credit card(s) best suit your needs, it's time to sign up. This is where things get fun. Nearly every credit card on the market offers some sort of sign-up bonus, but some are definitely better than others. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card (my favorite travel credit card) offers a standard sign-up bonus of 40,000 points. This is equivalent to two domestic round-trip saver flights on United. However, you might be able to get an even better deal. Financial institutions will often run promotions where they will raise the amount of points or lower the minimum spending requirement. Once you figure out which card(s) you want, keep an eye out for advertisements offering deals, email offers, or flyers in your mailbox.

Make sure you can hit the minimum spending requirement to get the sign-up bonus. Fortunately, almost everything can be paid for with your credit card, including bills, so switching some things to your new credit card can be an easy way to hit your minimum. There's no point in signing up for a credit card if you're not going to get some sort of bonus, so if you can't hit the minimum for a certain card, don't sign up for it.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where you'll learn what to do once you get the credit card(s) in your wallet!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lately I'm Loving: Le Journal en Français Facile

When I was in sixth grade, I took my first French class, and I never stopped taking French classes until I graduated from college with a minor in French. These days, though, my French skills are on the back burner, and they're quite rusty. I've been wanting to get back in the language game, but I didn't really know where to begin. Fortunately, my francophone brother recently turned me on to Le Journal en Français Facile.

Le Journal is a daily podcast about international news, and it's entirely in French. "Facile" is the French word for "easy," so the podcast's broadcasters and reporters use simple words and explain things in their context. However, they do not speak slowly, and that has been the most challenging part for me. I get excited when I understand a whole segment because it happens rarely.

The best part about Le Journal is that it's only 10 minutes long, which makes it manageable to squeeze into anyone's schedule. I listen to it on the train on my way home from work. Occasionally, if I get behind, I listen to a couple of them while I run. This is a bonus since exercise helps people retain knowledge better.

I also enjoy hearing news from a non-American perspective. While Le Journal broadcasts stories about all current major international events, it has a heavy focus on French and European stories. It's especially interesting when they discuss news from America because it's often a very different point of view than what I hear or read in the American media.

One of the best tips I've heard for learning a foreign language is to try to do the things you'd normally do in the foreign language you're trying to learn. Instead of watching the evening news (or, in my case, catching up on current events via my Twitter feed on my commute), I listen to the news in French. C'est magnifique!

Monday, June 1, 2015

Giving It a Tri

Despite the 50-degree temperatures here in Chicago, it's officially summer! For the last two summers, I've occupied my time with marathon training. While I loved running with my CARA buddies, marathon training is a VERY time-intensive process, and I'm feeling a little burned out on it. I've decided to take a break from distance running this summer and focus on a new goal.

So I signed up for my first triathlon. [insert shrieking with terror sound]

I've always been intrigued by the idea of doing a triathlon. I was a competitive swimmer all through high school, and I've done a lot of running over the past few years. But I hate cycling. I get very nervous on a bike. When I was a kid, I broke down in tears on a family bike ride because I had to ride over a high-traffic bridge, and I was scared that I'd either fall into traffic or into the river below. So, yeah, I'm not a great cyclist. Ever since I signed up for ClassPass, though, I've fallen in love with spinning. After a couple months of once-a-week spin classes, I thought to myself, "Maybe riding a real bike wouldn't be so bad after all."

As of right now, I have no training plan (and no bike!), but I paid the hefty entry fee, so there's really no turning back now. Anybody have any advice for a tri newbie?

Monday, May 18, 2015

What to Pack for Dubai

Before I left for Dubai, I spent a lot of time frantically Googling what I should bring with me. The UAE is a Muslim country, so I knew I'd need to be covered up, but it's also a hot country, so I knew I'd want to stay cool.

Additionally, there are different dress requirements depending on where you're going to be in the city. In the streets, souks, and malls, the dress code is strictest. Women should wear loose-fitting clothing that covers their shoulders and knees and doesn't show any cleavage.

In Dubai, the mall has a dress code.

However, when you're at your hotel or a primarily Western establishment, shorts and tank tops are perfectly fine. At the beach or the waterpark, you'll see lots of women in bikinis. If you go to a nightclub, there will be no shortage of short, tight, skin-baring dresses.

Navigating that social minefield is tricky. This is what I packed:

I am normally not a fan, but for our Dubai trip, I purchased a maxi dress, and it was perfect for the Middle East. I wore it to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque with a hijab, to a fancy dinner at Emirates Palace with a statement necklace and a pashmina over my shoulders, and I wore it as a cover-up at the beach.

I knew I couldn't wear shorts, but jeans would be too hot. As a compromise, I brought two pairs of cropped chinos, and I lived in them all week. I paired them with a t-shirt or a lightweight button-down shirt for the perfect covered-but-cool look.

The most essential item to bring on your trip to Dubai is a pashmina. I brought a simple black one and bought a pretty patterned one in the textile souk. I used mine as a shawl, a hijab, and a scarf for chilly evenings.

With these essentials, you'll be comfortable, cool, and stylish in any location or situation in Dubai.