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.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Dubai Trip: Part 3

While Dubai itself is a pretty awesome destination, there are some great side trips to be had. In fact, my favorite activity of the trip didn't even take place in the UAE!

The Musandam Peninsula of Oman is only about a 3-hour drive from Dubai, but it feels worlds away. As you drive away from Dubai, the landscape gets rockier. The border sits right on the Persian Gulf, and you can see dozens of oil tankers just off-shore. The craggy mountains and bright blue water are truly beautiful.

The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE (kind of like how Alaska is separated by Canada), and it's a very remote region characterized by its fjords. The largest town in the region is Khasab, which only has a population of about 17,000 people. In Khasab, we boarded a boat for six hours of cruising the fjords.

I have about 150 more pictures of the gorgeous fjords, but this is my favorite.

It was a sunny, 80-degree day, perfect for a leisurely boat ride. The tour guide pointed out various sights, but most of our time was spent quietly relaxing. The crew provided a delicious lunch of fried chicken, salad, and hummus, and we got to try Omani tea, which was quite tasty. Humpback dolphins call the fjords their home, and we were lucky to see quite a few.

See them down there? There was a pod of 4 dolphins that put on a little show for us.
The Musandam Peninsula features some of the best snorkeling in the Middle East, so we got to do that. I'd never actually been snorkeling before, and while I wasn't a huge fan, it was pretty cool to see the fish and plant life beneath the surface. Mostly, I just loved getting to swim around in the incredible setting.

I really, really enjoyed our time in Oman, and I'd love to return to see more of the country. If you ever find yourself in Dubai, you simply must take a day to get over to Musandam and see the fjords. It's spectacular.

Our other trip out-of-town was to the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi. We spent one night there, but were in the city for less than 24 hours. Still, I'm glad we went. It felt very different than Dubai. It was greener and the pace of life was slower. If I had to live in the UAE, I'd probably prefer to live in Abu Dhabi over Dubai.

One of the chief tourist attractions in the whole country is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and it was our first stop in Abu Dhabi.

The mosque - like most things in the UAE - is relatively new. Construction finished in 2007. The mosque was the idea and now is the final resting place of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding president of the UAE. He was a very charitable man, and this mosque was built to unite the cultural diversity found in the Muslim world. He died in 2004 and his tomb is onsite.

There are a few tours offered each day, and I'm really glad that we decided to take one. Our guide, Mohammed, was informative, personable, and funny. I learned a lot about the mosque, but I also learned a lot about Islam in general and the history and culture of the UAE.

Because this is a working mosque and not just a tourist site, the dress code is very strict, especially for women, who must cover their ankles, elbows, and heads, and must wear loose-fitting clothing. If you want, you can wear an abaya provided by the mosque, but I just wore a maxi dress, cardigan, and a pashmina as a hijab. It was a very interesting experience wearing the hijab. It affected my peripheral vision, and because it was windy when we visited, I was always very aware of it and had to constantly adjust it. I'm glad I don't have to wear it on a daily basis.

Had to take a hijab selfie. I was so proud that it stayed on for an hour-and-a-half!

For our one night in Abu Dhabi, we had a fancy dinner at Mezzaluna, one of the restaurants at Emirates Palace. Emirates Palace is a gorgeous, 5-star hotel. The hotel is very luxurious, easily the nicest I've ever been in. The luxury was crystal clear when we saw a gold ATM inside. That's right; it's an ATM that dispenses gold. Only in the UAE!

The next morning, we had a super tasty breakfast at Jones the Grocer, and then took a nice walk along the Corniche.

I wish we would've had a bit more time to spend just hanging out in Abu Dhabi, but we had to get back to Dubai for one last adventure: one night at Atlantis.

You know the Atlantis resort in The Bahamas? The one made famous by Mary-Kate and Ashley? Well, they have one in Dubai, too. It's located out on a man-made, palm tree-shaped island, and it's pretty swanky. We decided to splurge for our last night of vacation.

This is the view from our room. That's the resort's giant aquarium. We could watch sharks and rays and all kinds of fish  swimming around from our balcony!

We aren't normally "relaxers" when we're on vacation; we like to do lots of things and see lots of places. But for our last day, we tried relaxation on for size at Atlantis's multiple pools and their extensive beachfront.

I could maybe get used to this kind of vacation.
But we couldn't get too comfortable with comfort. After all, Atlantis has the number 1 water park in the Middle East and Europe, and as hotel guests, we got free, unlimited access!

This is a conveyor belt that will take you back up to the top of the water slides so you don't have to walk. I love Dubai.

Because our flight back home wasn't until midnight, we planned it out so that we could spend the whole day hanging out and relaxing at Atlantis before going to the airport in the evening. We checked our bags at the front desk, kept small bags with a change of clothes and some necessary toiletries in lockers at the park, and spent the whole day getting wet and wild. It was a fantastic way to close out our time in Dubai.

Overall, we had a fantastic trip to Dubai (and Oman and Abu Dhabi). Even though Dubai can be a little superficial, I think we did a good job getting underneath the surface just a little to experience a bit of Emirati culture. I'm really glad that we did the mosque tour because it answered a lot of my questions about Islam and Muslim culture, and I'm glad that we took the time to go to the Dubai Museum to learn about the city before the skyscrapers and million-dollar cars. I definitely enjoyed the Middle East, and I can't wait to return.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Dubai Trip: Part 2

There's a lot that is shiny and new about Dubai, but there's also a section of town called Bur Dubai that will give you a feel for how things were before the glitz and glamour took over.

A great place to start is the Dubai Museum. The museum itself is housed inside of a fort that was built in 1787 and is the oldest existing building in Dubai. The exhibits inside take visitors through the history of the city and how it evolved from a small pearling village to the global destination it is today.

Outside the Dubai Museum with a dhow (traditional Arab ship) in the background

After learning how people used to live in Dubai, you can experience it for yourself. Around the corner from the museum is Al Bastikiya, a small neighborhood with beautiful buildings dating back to the 1890s. It's a very peaceful and enchanting area. Over 100 years ago, the buildings were the homes of wealthy pearl traders, but now, they're mostly filled with art galleries, shops, and restaurants.

The tower on this building was a precursor to air conditioning. The tower would catch the cool breezes and funnel them down into the home.

While walking around, we stumbled upon a small calligrapher's shop. We had the owner write our last name in Arabic calligraphy. When we got home, we framed it and now it hangs in our home. It's my favorite souvenir.

Along the banks of the Dubai Creek are the traditional souks, or open-air markets. We started off in the textile souk. Don't be afraid to haggle hard! Also, check the tags. When the salesman tells you the scarf is silk but you find out 2 days later it's polyester, you'll be annoyed that you spent so much. Not that I have any experience with that...

The salesman dressed Adam up. Then, he told him he was an honorary Arab and that he looked like a sheikh. Nice sales technique, but we were onto him.

On the other side of Dubai Creek are the Gold and Spice Souks.

Both are neat to see and are great photo ops, but I found the gold souk in particular very underwhelming. It's basically just a block full of a bunch of jewelry stores. In fact, the photo above was taken through the shop window. But if you have money to spend, the prices are pretty good.

The best part of visiting the souks was getting to take an abra across the Creek. For just 1 dirham (about $0.30), you can get out on the water for a few minutes and experience a different view of the city.

I'm on a boat!

One of the more popular tourist activities in Dubai is a desert safari, and even though it is a bit cliche, it was a lot of fun. First of all, seeing the desert is incredible. The sand is so fine and soft, and it extends as far as the eye can see.

The landscape begs for jumping pictures.

We took the Evening Desert Safari with Dubai Desert Safari Tours, but all of the companies basically offer the same thing. The guides drive Toyota Land Cruisers (some of the fancier companies have Land Rovers), and the first part of the tour is spent riding up and down the sand dunes. Adam love this, but I found it a bit nauseating and terrifying. I was happy when we pulled into the camel farm. That's right: camel farm. We got to feed baby camels!


The evening ended at a camp where we had dinner. There were lots of activities at the camp, like henna tattoos, sandboarding, and camel rides. We took advantage of everything, especially the camel ride.

Another unofficial activity was sunset-watching. Nailed it.

For dinner, they served a buffet of delicious Arabic food like grilled lamb and chicken, hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, saffron rice, lentil salad, and pita with za'atar. While we ate, we were entertained by artists performing traditional Middle Eastern dances. First, there was a fantastic belly dancer. My abs were sore just watching her!

The second performer was a man who did an Egyptian folk dance called Tanoura. Similar to the Whirling Dirvishes of Turkey, a Tanoura performer spins in a circle while wearing a long, colorful skirt.

This guy got fancy halfway through when he lit up his outfit and then took off one of his skirts to reveal another one underneath. It was really impressive.

At the end of his performance, he looked around the crowd for someone to try it out and picked me! Not gonna lie, I was pretty good at it. Thanks, years of ballet class, for teaching me how to spot!

But seriously, I was pretty dizzy by the end.

Even though there's a lot about Dubai that's superficial and fairly sanitized, I really fell in love with Arabic culture on this trip, and I am already plotting my return the Middle East.

Next up: we get out of town.