Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Home and Away in August

August is generally one of the best times of the year to enjoy the Pacific Northwest, at least in terms of weather. We garden, we take our boat out into Birch Bay to catch crab, we visit with children and grandchildren, and we generally enjoy life. Sometimes, though, we travel. For example...

At the end of August 2009 we were visiting a Caribbean street festival in London

At the end of August 2010 we were attending Kathy's high school class reunion in Durango.  

At the end of August 2011 we were finishing up our kitchen renovation.

At the end of August 2012 we were at home with two visiting grandchildren, picking apples and making pie.

At the end of August 2013 a Zimbabwe taxi driver asked our advice as he drove us to VFA (Victoria Falls Airport). 

At the end of August 2014 we were visiting San Francisco for a couple of days after disembarking from a cruise on Oceania's Regatta that started in Vancouver and took us up to Alaska before sailing down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco. 

At the end of August 2015 we were wandering around Whatcom Falls Park in Bellingham.

In mid-August 2016 we were dining with Brian's stepmother in Victoria, British Columbia.

At the end of August 2017 we were touring Alcatraz with two granddaughters during our short visit to San Francisco. On the same trip we spotted two naked cyclists out for a bike ride, fortunately at some distance. After all, it's San Francisco.

At the end of August 2018 we were enjoying some of our home-grown tomatoes.

At the end of August 2019 we were on our way home from Europe with three granddaughters after our traditional whirlwind tour.

At the end of August 2020 we weren't doing much of anything, but at the end of September we were visiting Texas to attend a family wedding.  

Near the beginning of August 2021 we were foraging mushrooms with Kathy's younger brother and sister-in-law high in the Colorado mountains (think 10,500 feet) near Durango.

At the end of August 2022, we're puttering around the house and garden while finalizing the details of some of our upcoming travel plans, including a trip to New Mexico and Colorado that starts this Labor Day weekend. 

We're looking forward to it.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Renting a Car: One Expert's 'Ultimate Guide'


We've posted recently about the challenges of car rentals here, here, and here.

Christopher Elliott, whom we quote fairly often, has just published an updated version of his comprehensive 2021 article:

How to rent a car: the ultimate guide

It's well worth reading, particularly if you rent cars on your own dime like we do. Elliott not only writes about travel, but his Elliott Advocacy mediates disputes between travel companies and consumers, so he knows whereof he speaks. We already follow much of the advice Elliott offers here,  but we'll incorporate more photography into our pickup and dropoff routines.

We make use of Autoslash, and we often find good values through our Costco membership travel portal. Costco has agreements with Budget, Alamo, Enterprise, and Avis.

We rent either directly through the rental firm's website or through Costco, which gives us the same status as if we'd rented directly.

We decline the company's coverage and use a credit card that offers primary rental car insurance coverage. 

We never add options and we never use the prepaid fuel option.

As with hotels and flights, we check regularly to see if better rental rates have appeared.

Now to the photos. We're going to take more when we pick up the car. Elliott writes:

At a bare minimum, you need shots of the front, back and sides of the car. I would recommend two close-up shots of each side, the front and rear windshield, the front and rear of the car, and the roof. Don’t forget the interior: the dashboard (showing the odometer and fuel gauge readings), front seats, back seats, and trunk. Also, make sure the license plate is visible in at least one picture, and capture the VIN placard (on the pillar behind the driver’s door or in the lower-left corner of the windshield). If you want to be extra careful, take snapshots of the wheels, under the two bumpers and roof. Believe it or not, motorists have been billed for damage that’s invisible to the naked eye at the time of the rental. You can’t be too careful.

We've never thought much about taking photos of the rental car when we return it, but it makes obvious sense and that will now become part of our routine. Elliott writes:

Whip out your camera, and photograph the inside and outside of the vehicle. Take as many images as possible. Note any dings, dents or scratches. Pay close attention to the windshield; that area is the number one source of damage claims. (Essentially, you should repeat the entire process you went through at pickup, including shots of the license plate, VIN, and dashboard, showing mileage and fuel level.)

Renting through the rental outfit's website as signed-up members often allows us to skip the counter completely and pick up our car directly. Avoiding a rental counter rep's upsell attempts at the end of a travel day is always a pleasure.

After all that, we'll rent our car with some peace of mind but still keep our fingers crossed. 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Frequent Flyers' Wily World of 'Manufactured Spending'

While the name David Phillips seems commonplace and unexceptional, substitute his nickname Pudding Guy and you have a legend among travelers involved in the game of manufactured spending.

What did David Phillips do? Back in the 90s he was inspired by a Healthy Choice mail-in promotion to buy thousands of dollars worth of pudding and mail in the barcodes for air miles, earning well over a million air miles (referred to as "points") in the process. He's a member of FlyerTalk (as we have been since 2002), where there is an entire forum devoted to Manufactured Spending

You can read about Pudding Guy here. His exploits even inspired the subplot for an Adam Sandler character in the movie Punch-Drunk Love. Incidentally, Pudding Guy's five suggestions* quoted in that article are spot-on and well worth reading. We've followed every single one of them since our earliest days of intensive travel in the early 2000s.

Manufactured spending is usefully defined in the Doctor of Credit blog as "the process of purchasing cash equivalents with a rewards earning credit card, where the rewards earned are greater than the fees incurred."

There have been other legendary uses of the manufactured spending ploy. For example, the US Mint set up a promotion to encourage the use of dollar coins. Someone quickly discovered they could order the coins with a credit card, After the Mint shipped them for free, the customer turned them in at a bank, and paid the bill with a points-earning credit card. Many people earned millions of points buying dollar coins. 

Hilariously, after the US Mint finally caught and stopped the promotion, the Royal Canadian Mint set up exactly the same scheme and ran it even longer than had the US Mint, with the same results: a windfall for practitioners of manufactured spending. 

Then there was the guy who hired a team of out-of-work Thai rice farmers and paid them more than the Thai minimum wage just to be on a plane all day long, back and forth between two Thai cities on an airline running an $8 fare special, thereby earning millions of points. In the process, the US Drug Enforcement Administration called him in for a chat, initially suspecting he was the "stupidest drug-runner they'd ever seen." By the time he was done explaining, one of the agents allegedly asked if he could get in on the action. 

Years later, people continue to buy various kinds of gift cards and money orders, only to churn them and cash them in.

Setting aside the question of whether or manufactured spending is a moral endeavor, the fact is that people engaging in manufactured spending are behaving in a way similar to those involved in the definitely criminal practice of money laundering. That can raise suspicions with credit card providers, banks, and merchants. You can read a description of an individual who says he was detained and questioned by the police and the IRS after buying gift cards at a Walmart. 

You can read a discussion here about whether manufactured spending is illegal "or just a great travel hack."

You can read here about another couple who largely beat the IRS when the latter came after them for taxes on about $300,000.

It's easy to understand why the blogger at God Save the Points says "I think manufactured spending is dumb," and gives reasons.  

Is manufactured spending worth the time and trouble and risk? It definitely isn't for us, but it obviously is for some. 

*Pudding Guy's five suggestions on earning and traveling with airline miles:

1. Become a travel industry guru by studying travel blogs and deal sites.

2. Be ready to purchase a last-minute deal. Don't hesitate.

3. Be flexible with your travel calendar.

4. Don't always use your airline miles. 

5. Check these websites daily [open the article for the details].


Thursday, August 25, 2022

What's in Our Wallet? Credit Cards, Debit Cards, and Travel

Two of our go-to travel bloggers have recently published posts outlining their currently favored credit cards and the accompanying spending strategies.

Gary Leff of View From The Wing discusses his current credit cards, and Ben Schlappig of One Mile at a Time focuses on his American Express Credit Card strategy. They are among the travel bloggers who earn significant income through the credit card referrals that they link in their blog.

Some travel fanatics (a fanatic is anyone who thinks more about travel than we do) have amassed hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of points (air miles) by the practice known as credit card churning. They apply for cards with great opening bonuses, e.g. 100,000 miles after X dollars spent within a certain time frame, they collect the bonus, and then they cancel the card and move on to the next deal, keeping detailed spreadsheet records. 

They’ve gamed the system so effectively that most if not all of the major credit card providers have felt it necessary to implement restrictions on how many new cards a customer can open within a specified time period. One Mile at a Time discusses the most recent bank rules here.

As for us, we’re not nearly as creative. We’ve never felt the need to churn cards, still preferring to earn most of our miles the old-fashioned way by flying BIS (“butt in seat”). We did manage to earn significant bonuses in signing up for most of our current cards. All of our cards are set for automatic payment, needless to say with the full balance owing paid monthly. When traveling abroad, we only use cards with no foreign exchange fees, which fortunately includes most of them at this point.

We currently hold ATM debit cards with two banks. Our Chase debit card allows unlimited withdrawals from foreign ATMs, plus the refund of the fee charged by the foreign bank. We also maintain a small travel account of about a thousand dollars with Banner Bank, a regional bank that does not charge for foreign ATM use. We use that debit card if we're in any way suspicious about a transaction. It is one of our two Mastercards, along with our IHG credit card, which has saved us a couple of times when our Visa cards strangely wouldn't work. 

Credit cards are accepted much more commonly throughout the world than they were when we started to travel extensively about 20 years ago, and their exchange rates are surprisingly good, as long as you don't fall for the Dynamic Currency Conversion scam and accept the offer to pay in your home currency  in return for a 5-10% hit on the normal exchange rate. You can read more about DCC here and here. As in the US, we avoid non-bank "independent" ATMs, including Travelex and Euronet.

Here are the credit cards we actively use:

Chase Sapphire Preferred (transferable Ultimate Rewards points / general spending)

Hilton Honors Surpass AMEX (Hilton points / Hilton spending)

Alaska Airlines BOA Visa (annual companion fare / Alaska spending)

Costco Cititbank Visa Signature (2% Cashback card for Costco purchases, 3% for gas anywhere)

IHG Rewards Club Mastercard Visa (IHG Platinum status / annual free night)

In addition, we're currently using a British Airways Chase Visa to pay for the odd BA fare. The card offers 10% off BA fares. That is stackable with the AARP member savings (anyone of any age may join AARP). We credit our BA flights to Alaska. We acquired it in time to pay for our new roof a few years ago and earned a bunch of bonus BA Avios points. We also use an old Chase Ink Visa Business Card to pay our internet and wireless bills and earn transferable Ultimate Rewards.

All these of course are US-based offers. It's our understanding that lavish opening bonuses are less common in many other countries, although Alaska Airlines has for years offered a Canadian credit card that offers the annual free companion fare, and it's now possible to find Canadian credit cards with no foreign exchange fees.

There are still bonuses to be had, and valuable points to be earned, along with referral commissions to the major travel bloggers. In a future post we'll discuss another way that some travelers earn miles, the wild and wacky world of "manufactured spending."

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Birch Bay WA: The Aftermath of Sunset

Seen a few nights later from the Bay Breeze CafĂ©…

Monday, August 22, 2022

Launching the 'Overture' Supersonic Airliner

We walked through a Concorde on display once. We can't even remember where but the cabin was surprisingly small. Of course, the flights didn't take that many hours, so there was no need for lie-flat seats, even though each seat was being sold for many thousands of dollars.

A couple of decades after the last Concorde flew, a company aptly named Boom Supersonic is planning a new supersonic airliner, and United Airlines and Japan Airlines have allegedly already ordered or pre-ordered them, according to this article. The company's website indicates that American Airlines has also just signed a deal with Boom to purchase "up to 20" with an additional option for 40 more.

It's supposed to be environmentally friendly, even while cutting international flight times nearly in half. That's quite a selling point.

Speaking of points, maybe we should start accumulating airline points now in anticipation of Overture's 2029 planned launch date.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Crab Season Is Open

Up here in the northwest corner of Washington State, we’ve been readying ourselves for the opening of crab season.

We’ve experienced a couple of successful days and see various crab delicacies ahead.

Some big’uns…

A good start.

Fined: The Surfing Tourists of Venice

From CNN: Tourists fined for surfing up Venice's Grand Canal

The mayor of Venice described them as "two overbearing idiots making a mockery of the city." He offered a free dinner to anyone able to identify the pair. There's no question that they would have turned a lot of heads. In our fairly frequent visits to Venezia, as recently as this past July with grandson Blane, we've never seen such a sight.

Nope, not a self-propelled surfer to be seen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Fodder for Flight Geeks: Is There a 'Perfect' Premium Flight Length?

Ben Schlappig, aka Lucky, produces one of our favorite travel blogs, One Mile at a Time. It's a great spot for airline, airport lounge, and hotel reviews. We've met him a couple of times over the years, and he's as personable as you would think from his writing.

Today he muses about the ideal length for overnight and day flights in Business or First Class.

What Is The Perfect Premium Flight Length?

We generally agree with his conclusions, especially in regard to flights that are not long enough. A typical example is a flight departing JFK at night and landing at LHR the next morning. There just isn't enough time to enjoy the premium experience, and to get anything more than a very few hours of fitful sleep before landing.

While Ben's 12-hour optimum length for an overnight flight is a valid rule of thumb, a couple of our most enjoyable premium flights have been of the ultra long-haul type, for example the "world's longest flight" we tried in 2019, SQ 22 SIN-EWR. We had to start our trip in India to take advantage of the $1,300 one-way fare from Singapore to Newark, so upon arrival at SIN we spent a few hours in a transit hotel before moving to a Silver Kris Lounge.

When we finally boarded the Airbus 350 ULR (Ultra Long Range), we were suitably impressed. The dining experience was excellent and we had a couple of good rests during our 17 hours and 20 minutes in the air. It was one of our favorite flights ever, despite its length, and as we wrote here, we'd do it again in a minute if the price were right. 

On the other hand, take 15-20 hours of flying time and apportion it to two or even three flights, and that's much less enjoyable. In fact, it's downright fatiguing, even in Business Class. 

We wouldn't expect much sympathy from those flying in the back, or those who have never had the opportunity to fly on such aircraft. Every flight is a new adventure for us, and a flight that's too short or too long is still better than no flight.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Low River Levels in Europe Hampering Transport and Cruising

 Our 2018 river cruise involved a boat swap because of low water levels. Europe's hot summer, which we personally experienced with grandson Blane in July, has almost certainly contributed to low water levels which are disrupting cruising and river commerce in general.

Recent CNN and Bloomberg articles highlight the current dismal situation.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Birch Bay Sunset

From our back yard…

Options in Ground Transportation

We're flying to Albuquerque in a few weeks, and renting a car to drive up to Colorado. All we can do is hope that the car we reserved will be waiting for us at the airport. Tales of rental shortages are widespread and many would-be renters have been dismayed to find out there's no car available.

Christopher Elliott's column in USA Today covers a lot of ground (no pun intended) and is worth reading. Unfortunately, we don't see any tips that would help us in the event our rental fell though.

Traveling this summer? It's never too soon to start planning your ground transportation.

We'll certainly check out some of the apps he recommends. 

Thursday, August 11, 2022

A New Airbnb Warning

Gary Leff highlights in a View From The Wing post the cautionary tale of a guest who booked a property that proved to be abandoned when she arrived:

Warning About Airbnb’s With Good Reviews – But Aren’t What They Seem

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Another Bad Travel Weekend

We're relieved we don't have any travel plans until the Labor Day weekend, but who knows when the current situation is going to improve? The Hill reports on the past couple of days...

More than 1,500 flights canceled in another tough weekend for US travel

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Flight Cancellations to Continue into Fall

Bad news for travelers via USA Today... 

American Airlines to cancel hundreds of flights out of Philadelphia in the coming months

CNN paints an even more depressing picture...

'Unsustainable and shambolic': Flight attendants speak out on summer travel chaos

As for us, we've noticed flight schedule changes involving no fewer than five upcoming reservations.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

London and Amsterdam Airports Limit Air Traffic

 Air travel continues to be challenging, for want of a nastier word, in many parts of the world.

CNN reports that London Heathrow (LHR) and Amsterdam's Schiphol (AMS) are continuing with their schemes to limit traffic. 

More curbs to air traffic in London and Amsterdam

When will we see the end of the crisis?

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Never Take Food Down Under

The Australians and New Zealanders guard the borders of their island nations zealously against any potential infestation that might damage their crops or, in this case, livestock.

The Aussies are quite proud of their latest bust, a passenger transporting two sausage and egg McMuffins from Bali, Indonesia, where there's been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, to Darwin, Australia. The smuggling passenger was caught by a sniffer dog and fined the equivalent of US $1,870.

Gary Leff has the details here in View From the Wing. 

It can happen here too, and probably does every day, but only a few cases get publicity. For example, in 2018 a Minnesota woman was fined $500 and lost her Global Entry status for failing to declare an apple to U.S. Customs, an apple Delta Airlines had handed out inflight.

In August 2015 granddaughter Avery and we personally witnessed an acrimonious exchange at U.S. Customs after landing from Paris at Newark Airport (EWR). A woman pushing an infant in a stroller was complaining loudly to the customs agent because he had faulted her for not declaring the baby's bottle of milk. He had the last loud word as he was leading them away. "You've just lost your Global Entry!" It doesn't pay to argue with a New Jersey customs agent.

For what it's worth, we avoid carrying food across borders, unless it's something like aged Parmesan Cheese from Parma that a) we know is legal to import, and b) we intend to declare.

Monday, August 1, 2022