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travel adviceSo I am starting today a new tag for my philosophical travel musings that really don’t fit into any other category called “My Best Advice.” It’s just that – what I have learned as a traveler and the mindsets that I’ve found to be powerful. I love hearing travel advice from others, so maybe mine will be welcomed, too.

Way back, when I was a lowly art student going to college in Chicago, I’d occasionally get invites from friends to visit their homes in other places. And every time I could, I said yes.

“Would you wanna come to middle-of-nowhere Indiana?”

Yes.

“I’m going home to Iowa for a few days, wanna join?”

Yes. 

“Ever been to St. Louis? We could take the train?”

Yes. 

“Milwaukee for the day?”

Yes.

I have nothing against Indiana, Iowa, St. Louis, or Milwaukee, but they weren’t exactly on my bucket list. But who cares? I got to see new parts of this huge country, meet new people, and see how other people lived, if only for a few days. And, in my opinion, travel is always worth it. In fact, I think it is the only thing worth going into debt for (please don’t, but suffice it to say I value it that highly).

There are many elements at play here:

  • You never know who you might meet
  • The place might end up being a gem
  • You might have a lot of fun, which would be terrible
  • Travel is something that builds you up as a person
  • It might change your outlook on life

When someone mentions Indiana, I like having a basis for that. I like knowing what Milwaukee is like. I’m glad that I went to those places.

Nowadays, I have the wonderful task of cherry-picking where I want to go next. Unless it’s a mistake or attack fare, in which case, I will most likely snap it up. It’s how I’m getting to Ireland in a few months, it’s how I went to Alaska for the first time, and to Munich for Oktoberfest. Oh, and add Iceland to the list, too!

It still happens from time to time though, that I get a random invite. These days, it’s usually for a wedding. I made it out to Westbrook, Connecticut this past summer, and I’m heading to rural Ontario, Canada in early June on the basis of a random invite. And each time something like this happens, if I can feasibly do it, I make the room in my life, and I go go go. Read More

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After arriving hella late to New Orleans, me and my partner Jay hopped in a cab and made our way into the city. A cab from MSY to the French Quarter area is $33 flat each way, just FYI.

The Hyatt Regency New Orleans is about 6 blocks from the French Quarter, where most of the “action” of that blurry string of days took place.

I made a map!

I made a map!

As you can see on the map, New Orleans is chain hotel heaven. There are properties from IHG, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Starwood, etc.

The reason I picked this the Hyatt Regency is because I have an affinity for Hyatt, and because, over the circus that was Mardi Gras, I couldn’t find a block of consecutive days anywhere else. So, I had to move hotels – twice. But it’s good because I get to write about them now.

From my vantage point now, I liked the Hyatt Regency the best. It is a little off the well-worn French Quarter track, and isn’t particularly pedestrian friendly as it’s technically in the CBD (Central Business District), but I had no trouble getting around on foot. Might be a consideration for others, though.

Checking in

We bounced in at around 2:30pm. Check-in was supposed to be at 3pm, but judging from the constant stream of people going in and out, I could tell they might have trouble turning the rooms over so quickly.

We checked in on February 15th, and this image came to mind and made me lol:

The agent at the check-in desk told me the room wasn’t ready yet, but offered to take out bags and showed us where we could wait and grab a snack or a drink. How long would the wait be? I asked. 20 minutes. That’s nothin’. I was happy to try a New Orleans craft beer for a bit while the room got ready.

  We headed over to Borgne, the restaurant attached to the lobby. We were told that happy hour started at 3pm, but that we could order and ring everything in after 3pm. The happy hour was awesome! $3 local craft beers, $7 pitchers of sangria, $3 well drinks.   We ordered a pitcher of sangria (which was yummy and spicy), and I ordered a stout beer: the SPB Southern Prohibition Hipster Breakfast Oatmeal Stout, which is actually brewed in my home state of Mississippi. It was delish!

SPB Southern Prohibition Hipster Breakfast Oatmeal Stout - nom!

SPB Southern Prohibition Hipster Breakfast Oatmeal Stout – nom!

By the time that all went down, I went over to the check-in desk again and out room was ready by then. Perfect! So that is my check-in story. And here are some more pics.  Read More

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Iceland is a bit of an enigma for us frequent flyers. It’s not that it’s hard to get to – it’s just a 4.5 hour flight from New York – but the only airlines that fly there are Icelandair, Wow Air, and seasonally… Delta. Flights are cheap enough. Wow had KEF on sale recently for about $200 R/T, and Icelandair/Delta are around $600 R/T, depending.

There are only a couple of chain hotels, and they’re all in the northernmost capital city in the world, which is Reykjavik. Club Carlson operates two properties – the Radisson Blu 1919 and the Radisson Blu Saga, 44,000 Gold Points per night and 38,000 Gold Points per night, respectively, and Hilton also has their Hilton Reykjavik Nordica property there.

Anyway, I’m hoping to kick off a little series about what to do in Iceland, and I’ll start with the South Coast. Originally, I was going to do a post called “What to Do in Iceland (Hint: Not Reykjavik)”, but then decided to expand and break down the individual sections, because they are all vastly different. So I hope you enjoy!

South Coast

When you get to Iceland, you’ll find there is one road that is constantly referred to: The Ring Road, or Highway 1. It loops around the entire perimeter of the island. There is no way to go through Iceland, only around. The interior is uninhabited, and uninhabitable. The land in there has never been tamed, and is severe. Aside from glaciers, there are deep fissures and crevasses that are extremely dangerous.

Iceland has always had and still has deep roots to fishing. It is a huge source of export for them, and as such, most of the population has settled along the coast over the centuries (remind you of anywhere else?).

The South Coast of Iceland only has one major “town”, if you can even call it that: Vik. The town is tiny, really just a collection of hotels and a gas station, and a few restaurants.

Arrive

You probably passed this driving into Vik (waterfalls of Iceland's South Coast)

You probably passed this driving into Vik (waterfalls of Iceland’s South Coast)

After driving in from (most likely) Reykjavik, Vik, will be your next big stop more than likely. Side note: “vik” means “bay” in Icelandic. Reykjavik translates to “smoky bay” and the town of Vik is simply “bay.”

Approaching Vik

Approaching Vik

On the way from Reykjavik, you will have most likely stopped at the “Golden Circle” and maybe explored Reykjavik and the Reykjanes peninsula a little bit. You are most likely going to Jokulsarlon (“glacier lake”), Vatnajokull (“vatn” is “water” and “jokull” is “glacier” – this one is Europe’s largest and is about 11% of Iceland’s total surface area), and to see the astounding black sand beaches and huge columns of natural basalt, and maybe the simple, understated and completely elegant lighthouses.

Black sand beach in Vik

Black sand beach in Vik

You are not going for the weather. Vik is very rainy. They receive about 3 times the precipitation that Reykjavik does, and about 5 times what the North Coast receives. But it doesn’t matter. Iceland has its weather and it’s worth going anyway. You are bound to hit a good patch of weather at some point.

Stay

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Muriel’s Jackson Square, 801 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA

(504) 568-1885

www.muriels.com


Every time I go to New Orleans, I make sure to stop in at Muriel’s Jackson Square for lunch.

The first time I went to Muriel’s was in 2011, when I was in New Orleans for a birthday trip. It’s near a few voodoo/magick shops (Voodoo Authentica, French Quarter Gem and Lapidary, Esoterica – I like all that stuff), and after exploring for a few hours, was ready to grab some lunch.

It’s on the “northeast” corner (NOLA is kinda tilted, like Manhattan, but even more so) of Chartres and St Ann. What got me in was the lunch special… and the $4 lunch special martinis. Seeing that was like catnip, especially after coming from New York, home of the $16 martini.

On my recent trip to New Orleans, I went to Muriel’s again to continue the lunch tradition. It was as good as ever, even at the height of Mardi Gras madness. I wanted to share it with you guys.

Menu

Table at Muriel's

Table at Muriel’s

They focus on Southern/Cajun classics. It’s one of those places where everything on the menu is good – seriously, order anything, you can’t go wrong. I was really in the mood for catfish during this trip (had a catfish po’ boy and a couple other catfish dishes), but this one was unsurprisingly the best I had.

Here’s their lunch menu:

Muriel's lunch menu (click to enlarge)

Muriel’s lunch menu (click to enlarge)

They use high-quality ingredients and the dishes have huge flavor – lots of spices and richness and unexpected combinations. I got the Blackened Mississippi Catfish and my partner got the Crawfish Etouffee. The prices for the entrees are reasonable, especially considering the level of service they offer.

Blackened Mississippi Catfish

Blackened Mississippi Catfish

I love the presentation. And of course I had to get a round of dirty vodka martinis. They are delicious.

Martini

Martini

The menu is extensive and the food is delicious, which is important, but it’s all the other stuff that I love about this place.

Service and decor

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This is gonna be a histrionic, text-heavy post, I can just feel it. 

Faced with the prospect of spending 2 hours at EWR, I made my way to the Admirals Club – thank god there was one. Well, it was really a US Airways Club with the branding replaced. Everything about Terminal A in EWR is “US Airways.”

I thought maybe I could get some additional help with my routing and getting down to New Orleans in the Admirals Club. I explained that my check-in had flubbed and that I’d been separated from my companion. Not only that, but the plane had just left with my seat still available. And now, what were my options?

I said I was on standby for the next flight already. Was there anything else I could do? Any way to get a confirmed ticket – I’d even be willing to connect somewhere?

“The next flight to Charlotte after that one is at 1:15pm.” (7 hours after my original 6am flight, mind you.)

“I don’t want to wait that long. Could I connect somewhere else? Philadelphia, O’Hare…?”

“After the 1:15pm, we’re sold out for the rest of the day. You can try again tomorrow.”

Really. So at this point I was not feeling too great. So I grabbed some OJ, a yogurt, and a coffee, and wanted the Departures board like a hawk.

Before boarding, I made my way back to the gate agent before they got too overwhelmed for the flight I was hoping to get on.

“Just wanted to see if I’m having any luck getting onto this flight.” *presented my boarding pass*

The agent furrowed her brow and said, “Mmm. Hmmm. Ahhhh. Not looking too good.”

OK. “What can I do if I don’t get on this flight?”

While she plugged away at her computer, I pulled up flights on the American app. There was a 9:45am from LGA. I noted it mentally.

“Well,” she said finally. “You could always take the train to Philly. Yeah.” I’m not sure what kind of look I had outwardly, but I was thinking to myself, “You have got to be freaking kidding me.”

“You just take the AirTrain to [station] and transfer at [other station].”

“And how long does that take?”

“Two hours. If you leave right now…”

“But what if I get on this flight? And what about this 9:45am from LGA?” I read her the flight numbers.

“Oh, yeah. I see that. American flights,” and she chuckled to herself.

“Yes, American flights,” I confirmed.

“Oh, well that might work. Take a seat. But it’s not looking good.”

Moment of truth

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Very cool. Barclays is offering a 50% bonus on all spend for March through June for up to $20,000 in spend. This equates to 1.5 miles per dollar, which is a pretty nice rate of return for an airline cobranded card.

I value all my miles at 2 cents per dollar, so this is effectively 3% back if you value your miles the same way. At 1.5 miles per dollar, this matches what you’d earn by meeting the minimum transactions on an Amex EveryDay card for non-bonused spending, and obviously exceeds cards where you only earn one mile or point per dollar

With the merger between American and US Airways happening quickly, these miles will be incredibly useful on American pretty soon.

I’ll still give preference to my cards with category bonuses (groceries on the Chase Freedom this quarter, phone bill on the Chase Ink Plus, etc.), but will probably filter some spend onto this card after I max out the bonus I recently got on my US Bank Club Carlson Visa, which also begins in March – and it’s great to see credit card companies rewarding ongoing spending!

To check if you were targeted look under “Barclaycard extras” after you log in to the Barclays website:

The offer will show up here, if you're targeted

The offer will show up here, if you’re targeted

Then just check the box and click “Submit” – easy peezy.

Screenshot 2015-02-25 00.52.19

I’m just happy I made a screenshot before I clicked

Boom - enlarge to read T&Cs

Boom – click to enlarge to read T&Cs

Bottom line

It seems like a lot of US Airways MasterCard holders are being targeted for this offer without regard to account age, so if you’re new to the card or have had it for a while, it might be worth checking.

Were you targeted for this bonus? Will it encourage you to shift spend over to this card for a while? 

HT to Frequent Miler.

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Screenshot 2015-02-23 16.18.04A really cool promo with some very confusing wording is being offered to select US Bank Club Carlson Visa cardholders.

It’s no secret that I love Club Carlson points. It’s probably my favorite hotel chain for collecting and redeeming points, alongside Hyatt. I use my Club Carlson Visa quite a bit – in fact, I’d argue that it’s one of the best cards for everyday, non-bonused spend as it earns 5 points per dollar on every purchase.

I use the card quite a bit already, so it’s not like I need to be incentivized to use it more, but all the same, I got targeted for a new promo where I can earn up to 2,000 bonus Gold points during March and April.

Le offer email

Le offer email

That’s nice and all, but you have to unravel some really squirrely language in the T&Cs:

T&Cs (click to enlarge)

T&Cs (click to enlarge)

OK, so here’s how I’m interpreting this (sorry, it’s been a really long day and my brain is mush):

You have to spend on the card $1,900 to “unlock” the bonus points. After that, the next $2,000 spent on the card will earn 6 points per dollar. And after that, you go back to the normal 5 points per dollar.

Is this right? Is it just me or is this some seriously roundabout wording?

Bottom line

I’m glad to see US Bank stepping up their offerings (and this is a great article about how to get a free checking account + $100 for putting $1,000 in a savings account with US Bank) and offering some bonus points, even to customers who regularly use the card.

Getting past the initial $1,900 shouldn’t be too hard, and then the other $2,000 will be pretty easy as well – but I won’t let this card touch my new, re-virginized Serve account. I’ve had luck buying PayPal cards with the Club Carlson Visa at CVS as well as using it for Evolve Money payments while they were accidentally free for a sec (and still are until tomorrow, presumably).

I’ve added a reminder in my Evernote account to switch out my cards on March 1st, as I’m focusing my spend on other cards right now.

Was anyone else targeted for this offer, or perhaps for another one? Would love to know if there are any variations on this promo.

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Just a quick note.

I was poking around last night and came across a mention on Rapid Travel Chai’s Week in Points about a new way to earn some extra points via manufactured spending from a service called Flint (HT to Miles Remaining – I just discovered the blog and loved it! I instantly subscribed on my feedly).

I toyed around with the idea of signing up for the service for about 1.5 minutes before I decided to go for it.

I downloaded the app, got my US Bank Club Carlson Visa Signature card ready, snapped it in, and ran up a purchase for $750 (the max daily allowance).

This was after I entered in my bank info for direct deposit.

I saw the charge on the US Bank website. There it was, for $750, and it looked like it was gonna code as a purchase. Sweet. 18,000+ Club Carlson Gold Points for free? Yes, please.

The Flint charge at US Bank

The Flint charge at US Bank

So I was going to use the same plan as Miles Remaining to run $750 through 5 times in 30 days: on Days 1, 8, 15, 22, and 29.

And now, the warning

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From the I-knew-if-was-too-good-to-be-true files…

Well, consider this a data point if anything.

Oh, kwitcher cryin'

Oh, kwitcher cryin’

Tonight, I decided I was done messing with the REDbird card in New York City. It’s just too hard. The closest Target to me is the one at Atlantic Terminal, and they no longer accept credit cards for reloads – only cash and debit cards – which makes this product useless to me.

I’ve heard the one in Harlem is still accepting credit cards, but from my vantage point in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, it might as well be on the other side of the moon. I will go far for points and miles – but not that far.

At about 6 hours round-trip (yes, I am serious. New York City is huge and the MTA is a nightmare), I have to weigh my opportunity costs as well as my time. And while loading $5,000 per month is obviously more than $1,000 per month, at least I can run my Serve reloads from the app on my phone while I’m still lying in bed.

Time required: seconds. Opportunity cost: slight delay on coffee in the morning. 

My REDbird story

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I need to vent.

If you don’t like to read about people bitching/whining, I don’t blame you. It can be annoying. But I gotta get this out. It’s also pretty text heavy. So feel free to skip this one. #disclaimer

A mess fit for a King (Cake)

So as you guys know, I went down to New Orleans this week for Mardi Gras. I spent most of it pretty indisposed, which explains why I had to brush away cobwebs around here just now.

With near-record lows in the Northeast lately, I was ready for any type of warmup, even if it was just up to the 50s (beats single digits!).

On Sunday, I was originally scheduled to fly LGA-DFW-MSY, which I was really looking forward to.

I wanted to gain some EQPs toward my AAdvantage Platinum Status Challenge, visit the Centurion Lounge @ DFW, and get to New Orleans before the Krewe of Bacchus – all of which would’ve been accomplished by this routing. Oh, and it was all on American metal.

So my heart sank a little when I got this email:

They're succinct, I'll give 'em that

They’re succinct, I’ll give ‘em that

But life goes on.

I got re-booked to EWR-CLT-MSYall operated by our friends US Airways. But whatever, I wanted to stay optimistic, and maybe it would all be fine. At that point, I just wanted to get out of the city. Was not looking forward to EWR, or to CLT to be honest, and I knew I’d be giving up EQPs. But on I went. I would still make the first parade in plenty of time.

Then the beads hit the fan

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Well that was fast.

Last night, 2/14 (V-Day), I went to load up my brand new REDbird at the Atlantic Terminal Target store.
All things REDcard... except credit card reloads

All things REDcard… except credit card reloads

The employees have definitely been trained to look out for these cards and reloads.

Here’s what happened

So I went in, went and got in line at the normal registers just like last time, and presented my REDbird (REDcard). The cashier glanced at it and instantly dismissed it. “You have to take those to Guest Services.” Ugh. Started to get a bad feeling then.

So I went over to Guest Services, as instructed, and again presented my REDbird card.

 

“Are you trying to pay with a credit card?”

“Yes.”

Cash or debit only.

“Oh, but I loaded it here just last week with a credit card.”

“It’s a new rule. Cash or debit only,” the cashier repeated.

“But I can still load it with a credit card at other Targets.”

She rapidly shook her head. “All stores are cash or debit now.


I knew that wasn’t correct, but who knows what sort of information she’d been fed. I didn’t press her any more, and left.

The upshot was that:
  • The cashiers at this location are trained to look for these cards now
  • It is indeed cash or debit only
  • I wouldn’t waste my time trying here again
  • This is a huge missed opportunity for us New Yorkers as it’s already a barren wasteland for manufactured spending
  • It’s really disappointing to lose this opportunity so early on
  • Unless you travel often to other places that have a Target store, you are better off using Serve instead of trying to play with REDbird

But why?

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Pardon me if this post sounds incredibly naïve.

But I was under the impression that for the IHG Set Your Sights promo that I would have to go to a different state to complete it.

Now it seems I have a choice. 

This morning, I got an email:

They know

They know

What the hee-haw?

I’d assumed that my recent acquisition of the IHG Rewards Select credit card would not count toward this promo because I used a targeted email from IHG and not the link that was on the promo page – which I assumed was coded with a tracker that would link back to the promo. Well, you know what they say about assumptions…

Resigned to completing the other 3 out of 4 requirements, I quickly saw that I’d have to trek to Connecticut to play this round.

But now I have the choice.

CT vs NY

Ha, I will in no way debate the pros and cons of those two places, don’t worry.

But now I could simply check into the Holiday Inn Express here in Brooklyn – with a daily rate of ~$85 a night – and save myself a whole heap of cash… but lose out on 12,000 IHG points.

Screenshot 2015-02-14 11.21.20

Tempting

~$405 total

~$405 total

The only hitch right now is that my upgrade to Platinum hasn’t been applied yet, and I don’t even have the card in hand. If those two things were in place, I think I’d just go ahead and pull the trigger on this… and the rates when those two things coincide with each other might be very different than $85/night.

The other thing is that I will miss out on 12,000 IHG points by staying local. But then again, I just got 2,000 points for opening the card (that I wasn’t expecting) and my bonus was 10,000 points higher than the offer in the promo… so there’s my extra 12,000 points right there.

Now it’s just a matter of how crazy for points I want/can afford (with money and time) to get, how the rates change, and when my upgrade will be applied.

I was also kinda sorta curious about experiencing the EVEN brand but I think I can wait until they launch their NYC flagship location. If I had to. ;)

Bottom line

IHG is watching! And now I can choose whether to go to Connecticut and get 12,000 extra points or stay in NYC, get less points, and save money.

I’ll wait until 1). I have the card in hand so I can meet minimum spend and earn 5 points per dollar and 2). my Platinum status upgrade is applied. I want that 50% bonus!

I’m having fun with this promo and getting more familiar with a new (to me) program. And, in a bigger picture kind of way, it seems like mattress running is becoming the new mileage running (going after segments as opposed to miles flown if that makes any sense). Until hotels go revenue based too, of course.

Has anyone else been mattress running with the new IHG Set Your Sights promo? Worth it or nah? 

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