Category: Travel (page 1 of 3)

How Much Did Our Trip to Thailand Cost?

Marge and I recently got back our latest luxurious international vacation, and I’m gobsmacked at how little it cost. We flew to the opposite side of the world, ate delicious food, saw incredible sights, and stayed at a beachfront resort on crystal clear waters. And with just some frequent flyer miles to help us out, we paid less than $1,000 for the whole thing.

We wanted to visit Thailand because it seemed like everyone who goes comes back raving about it. We were not disappointed. We spent three nights in Chiang Mai, four nights on Koh Kood, and two nights in Bangkok.

Chiang Mai is a city of Buddhist temples up north. You can live well here very cheaply. And I suppose that “secret” is out, because it was crawling with ex-pats. We saw older white guys who obviously had decided to leave everything behind and live here permanently long ago. On the other hand, Koh Kood is an island near Cambodia that is just starting to see its first tourists.

For currency conversion, I used the exchange rate from of 35 baht to 1 USD from late January 2017.

Total Cost: $887.91


Flying over the north pole

2 Tickets Retail Cost Miles Used Our Cost
Cathay Pacific, Business, JFK to Thailand, Round Trip $10,192 220,000 American Miles $223

We’ve flown Cathay Pacific’s business class once, from Vancouver to JFK as a free one-way attached to our Switzerland trip, and it was fantastic, so we were immensely looking forward to this. Yes, we were really looking forward to a 15 hour flight from JFK to Hong Kong. The business class cabin was nearly empty on the flight out. The food was ridiculously good. Between the flight there and the flight back, I watched Shin Godzilla, Weiner, Spotlight, and a bunch of episodes of Flight of the Conchords. Continue reading

Vacation Rewind: The Cost of My Trip to Macedonia and Vienna

Today it’s time for another vacation rewind that answers the question: How much did my trip to Vienna and Macedonia cost? These posts tend to be some my most popular ones. Uh, have you ever Googled “cost of trip to Peru?” Maybe you should, if you like seeing pictures of me. So let’s do it again!

In 2014, one of my best high school friends got married to a girl from Macedonia. When he told me where she was from, I had to look this country up on a map, because that was the first I’d ever heard of it. Albania? Knew it. Bulgaria? Of course. Kosovo? Sure,  I’ve heard of it, but do I know if that’s a, official country or some kind of region? No, I don’t. But I’d never even heard of Macedonia.

Ohrid (37)Macedonia is part of the former Yugoslavia, bordering countries like Greece and Albania, where this friend had worked for the Peace Corps. So when they got married, they had a U.S. wedding and a Macedonian wedding. And since this could be my one chance to go to Macedonia, I left Marge behind and made the trip solo! Sorry, Marge! Tell your office to increase their vacation time and you can join me on the next crazy jaunt!

The conversion to US Dollars was made back when I took the trip in August 2014 ($1 USD = 0.758 Euros or 46 Macedonian denars) and some cash expenses were rounded to the nearest dollar.

Total Cost = $1,021.83


Ljubljana Airport (5)

 Flight Retail Cost Discount My Cost
Newark to Skopje, Coach $1,090.00 60,000 United Miles $180.10


Ljubljana Airport (4)

Empty Ljubljana Airport

Ever the travel hacker, I looked at all of the available options for flying into Skopje, where the wedding party would be meeting. It’s not easy to get to Skopje’s “Alexander The Great” Airport. Starting from a major U.S. hub, Newark, it takes at least three flights to get there. I wanted to use miles to buy the flight, and since Skopje is a little-used airport, there are only one or two airlines aligned with a major partnership flying into it. My only option was United miles because I had to use Star Alliance partners.

I eventually found flights that worked: Newark -> Zurich -> Llubjana -> Skopje. And then returning by Skopje -> Llubjana, -> Vienna -> Newark. I flew on United for the overseas flights, and Adria for European flights.


In my search, that word stuck in my head.  I’d been wanting to go Vienna ever since seeing The Third Man in high school. And it seemed to work as a transit destination for the return trip. I played with the United scheduler, and figured out that I could have a stopover in Vienna for three days and use no extra miles! Hence, the second part of my trip. I planned to stay in Vienna by myself!

Marge was able to put her jealousy aside and allowed me this chance to add a few more days to this extravagant, but very cheap, trip. As you can see, it cost about $180 total, which is all fees and taxes. Every airport you fly into charges you one or two fees. So since this required two stopovers in each direction, this cost was actually higher than I anticipated.

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The things we do for frequent flyer miles

I’ve always been into any scheme that lets me get something for nothing. That’s why I fell so hard for the credit card-churning game. For very little effort, I can reap huge (“YUGE!”) benefits. Fifty thousand points one month, forty thousand points another month… It adds up, and before you know it, you’re swimming in 3 million rewards points.

But sometimes this travel hacking scheme takes a little work. Gone are the days when people would do “mileage runs,” basically paying for and taking cheap flights strictly because of a bonus mileage offer. Gone are the days of the US Mint dollar coin deposit trick. But there are new schemes all the time. All it takes is someone like Barry Egan to figure out that each individual pudding cup is worth 250 frequent flyer miles.

Barry Egan stockpiling miles

Barry Egan stockpiling miles

So it was with the recent IHG Priceless Moments promotion. IHG is the group that owns the Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, Intercontinental, Staybridge Suites and other hotel brands. The Priceless Moments promotion is supposed to work like this: For every stay at one of their hotels, you get an entry to an online contest. And with each entry, you can win anything from 500 IHG points to 1 million points to a private helicopter ride over NYC.

The loophole is that, for some legal reason, there is “no purchase necessary.” And so buried deep in the contest’s terms and conditions is the rule that, instead of staying at a hotel, you can also enter the contest by sending them a 3×5 piece of paper in the mail with all of your IHG member information on it. And since the contest ran for 3 months, there were 94 nights you could possibly be staying in their hotels. So to make things even, you are allowed to enter by mail 94 times.

Someone also figured out the ratio of hotel point prizes and calculated that the average person will get about 47,000 IHG points. Sounds worth it to me!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what 188 envelopes looks like:

IHG Mailing (3)edit

Many thanks to the intrepid soul who figured this one out, because we benefited from their discovery. But not without some work.  See, each entry had to be filled out by hand with 8 different bits of information (Name, member number, date of birth, daytime phone number, etc.) Filling out 94 notecards with all of that takes some time! I did it while watching a movie or two. Luckily, the envelopes could be addressed with pre-printed labels!

There was also the matter of sealing the envelopes. Does anyone really wan to do that much licking? So Marge invented the method seen below. She remembers using an old ceramic stamp moistener at an prior job to seal envelopes, and put together the wet paper towel and bowl method seen below.

IHG Mailing (1)edit

What’s the price of all of this? 94 first class stamps are $46.06. I got 100 notecards for $1, and 100 envelopes for $3, so about $50 total.  A week after I sent in my entries, I started getting contest entry emails. You had to click a link in each email to see what you won.

More often than not, you get this screen:

IHG PointScreen

But sometimes you get 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 points. After everything was done, I had won 57,000 IHG points. At $50 spent, that comes out to .09 cents paid out of pocket for each point. That’s great, because I’ve gotten about 0.8 cents of value from each IHG point from my redemptions so far. That also means the 57,000 points is worth $456 of stays at IHG hotels.

You might have noticed I didn’t mention what Marge won.  She also filled out 94 cards, and we spent $50 on notecards, envelopes and postage. But in the end, she didn’t receive any entries. It took me a while to figure out why. I knew the cards were filled out correctly and I had sent them at the same time. The problem was I forgot to register her on the website for the promotion! Always remember the cross your T’s and dot your I’s, kids!

So in the end, we actually paid .18 cents per point. Still good, but not great. Mostly I’m annoyed that we potentially missed out on another 57,000 points!

What schemes have you been running?

How We’ve Spent Our Frequent Flyer Miles and Points

Earlier this week, we showed you the plethora of credit cards we’ve applied for over the past five years, and how many bonus miles and points we’ve earned for our small effort. Today I’m going to list all of our award redemptions, flights, hotels and all.

Ha Ling Peak Hike (3)

Ha-Ling Peak, Canmore

We haven’t paid for a flight since 2011 when we flew to Calgary and stayed in Canmore in the Rocky Mountains for a week. It shouldn’t surprise you that, even though we actually paid cash for our flight, we still didn’t pay for our hotel that week. It was a timeshare week that was gifted to us from a family member. Got to keep it frugal! Without the free accommodations, we probably wouldn’t have gone.

Andes from Plane (3)

Andes, Peru

Just like earning miles, there is a method to the madness of spending them. You want to maximize their value. Different airlines are on different airline alliances, meaning you can use their miles on certain other airlines. So certain miles are better to redeem for some destinations than others. Airlines each have their own award charts showing how many miles it will take to fly to different regions. To make it even more complex, there are peak and off-peak awards, routing rules you can avoid or take advantage of, airlines that do or do not charge fuel surcharges depending on the points used… I won’t even start to get into it. There are entire blogs devoted just to redeeming awards. And even after so many flights, I think I’m only at an intermediate level of knowledge on all of it.

Don’t lean on the electric fance

The following flights are all for two tickets, except for the trip to Vienna and Skopje, Macedonia, which I made alone. The cash values I assign come directly from the airline’s website, so take that with a grain of salt. Probably you could find a cheaper version of the same flight if you searched around.


Flight Airline, Class Date Points Used Cash Value
Albany to Aruba (RT) Delta, Coach Dec. 2012 120,000 $1,108
JFK to Vancouver Cathay Pacific, Coach Oct. 2013 25,000 $884
Vancouver to JFK Cathay Pacific, Business Oct. 2013 0 $3,710
JFK to Switzerland Air Berlin, Business May 2014 100,000 $3,703
Switzerland to JFK Lufthansa, Business May 2014 100,000 $5,500
Albany to Tampa (RT) Southwest, Coach May 2014 51,360 $900
Albany to Baltimore (RT) Southwest, Coach June 2014 20,316 $408
Newark to Skopje & Vienna (RT) Austrian, Coach Aug. 2014 60,000 $1,090
Albany to Orlando (RT) Southwest, Coach Oct. 2014 66,550 $1,110
Albany to Fort Myers, FL (RT) Southwest, Coach Jan. 2015 42,456 $744
JFK to Lima & Cusco (RT) Avianca & United, Business Mar. 2015 140,000 $5,238
JFK to Tokyo (RT) Japan Airlines, First Oct. 2015 250,000 $34,000
JFK to Chiang Mai, BKK to JFK Cathay Pacific, Business Jan. 2017 220,000 $10,192
Albany to Las Vegas (RT) Southwest, Coach Feb. 2017 34,908 $522
Newark to St. Kitts (RT) United, Coach Nov. 2017 68,000 $1,252
22 Round Trip Tickets 1,298,590 $70,361

(RT) = Round Trip

That’s basically ten vacations without having to pay for flights. We’ve spent nearly 1 million miles on flights at this point.


Tokyo Conrad (4)

Tokyo Conrad

Free Hotel Nights

City Hotel Date Nights Points Used Cash Value
Times Square, New York Intercontinental May 2013 1 50,000 $369
Clearwater Beach, FL Hyatt Regency May 2013 2 0 $858
Toronto Hilton Aug. 2013 3 52,500 $657
Vancouver Airport Hampton Inn Oct. 2013 1 8,000 $80
 Dusseldorf Intercontinental May 2014 1 0 $260
Zurich Hyatt May 2014 2 0 $1,808
Geneva Intercontinental May 2014 1 0 $380
Baltimore Candlewood Suites June 2014 1 10,000 $82
Orlando Waldorf Astoria Oct. 2014 2 0 $538
Soho, New York Four Points Nov. 2014 1 12,000 $460
Naples, FL Hilton Jan. 2015 2 60,000 $538
Fort Myers, FL Hilton Garden Inn Jan. 2015 2 40,000 $490
Fort Myers, FL Hilton Garden Inn, Airport Jan. 2015 1 30,000 $219
Manhattan Conrad Oct. 2015 1 0 $329
Osaka Intercontinental Oct. 2015 1 0 $275
Tokyo Conrad Oct. 2015 1 0 $680
Tokyo Bay Intercontinental Oct. 2015 1 0 $280
 Lake Placid, NY  Crowne Plaza June 2016 2 0 $340
Toronto  Intercontinental Aug. 2017 2 0 $537 
28 Hotel Nights 262,500  $9,180

To be honest, some of those hotel stays were not completely free. The ones where no points were used were “free nights” we received in exchange for paying a credit card’s annual fee, for example the Chase Hyatt card which gave us 2 free nights for the $79 annual fee in the first year, or the IHG card which gives us a free night annually for $49.

In addition to the points-only stays, most of the hotel chains offer “Points + Cash” deals which can be an even better use of hotel points than using only points.

For example, for a 3 night stay in a Long Island Holiday Inn, we could either pay $170 a night or 15,000 points per night, or the Points + Cash deal, $70 plus 5,000 points. Do the math out and the Points + Cash deal is much better. Spending the 5,000 points would save you $100. Spending the extra 10,000 points for the points-only stay would only save an additional $70.

Geneva Intercontinental (2)

Geneva Intercontinental

Discounted Hotel Nights

Hotel Date Nights Points Spent Dollars Spent Cash Value
Westbury, Long Island, Holiday Inn Sept. 2013 3 15,000 $210 $510
Geneva, Intercontinental May 2014 1 25,000 $70 $380
Skopje, Macedonia, Holiday Inn Aug. 2014 3 15,000 $120 $504
Vienna, Hilton Sept. 2014 3 55,998 $201 $1,059
Tokyo Bay, Intercontinental Oct. 2015 1 25,000 $70 $280
Toronto, Hilton Aug. 2017 2 32,000 $159 $402
13 Hotel Nights 167,998 $830 $3,134
Holiday Inn, Skopje, Macedonia

Holiday Inn, Skopje, Macedonia

Miles & Points Balance

2,995,000 Earned through credit card sign-on bonuses
279,530 Earned through other methods
(1,594,180) Spent so far
1,680,350 Remaining Balance


What are those “other methods” we’ve used to earn miles? One is just normal credit card spending, then there are some weirder ones, like the times I opened up a bank account and an investment account for the bonus miles offers. Recently, there was an even weirder method for earning miles while I will be writing about on Monday.

Here’s another stat. The total Cash Value of miles and points spent above = $79,963

Using that as an average, our total balance remaining is worth $81,676 in travel! Clearly we have not been able to keep up with the amount of miles and points we’ve been earning, so we’ve got a lot of traveling left to do.

Join us… Join us… Join us in the frequent flyer mile cult!

How We Churn Credit Cards for Frequent Flyer Miles & Points

By our standards, 2015 was a disappointing year for earning miles and points. Between Marge & myself, we were approved for 9 credit cards in 2015. In terms of bonuses, that means we earned 450,000 miles and points combined. For us, this is less than we earned in 2012, 2013 or 2014.

But by a normal human’s standards, 450,000 is hella points! If you had a credit card offering a generous 2x on all purchases, you would still have to spend $225,000 to earn that many points. What I mean to say is, bonuses are where it’s at when it comes to accumulating frequent flyer miles and hotel points. We churn credit cards because it takes little effort and it enables us to take insanely extravagant and frequent vacations we would never be able to take otherwise.

We’ve ended up with so many cancelled credit cards over the years, I’ve started to find creative uses for them. Don’t spend money on a dough scraper. A cancelled credit card works just as well! Here I am dividing up dough for chocolate babkas yesterday.

Credit Card Dough Cutter

If you’re wondering how credit card churning works, today I’m going to line out for you exactly which cards we’ve applied for over the years and when. It’s a method that can seem daunting to beginners: Apply in batches on one day called an “app-o-rama”, and make those batches no sooner than three months apart. You should only apply for one card per bank at a time (although in some circumstances, you can do more than one per bank), and make sure you can meet the minimum spending requirement to get the bonus! Then after 11 months, cancel the card unless the benefits outweigh the annual fee.

So if you’re curious about how we schedule all of these applications, this is how we do it:

Norm’s Credit Cards

Card Bonus Minimum Spend Annual Fee, 1st Yr Date Applied
US Air Mastercard Platinum 40,000 $0 $100 for 10k miles 7/24/2011
Delta Gold Personal 45,000 $3,000 Waived 12/17/2011
Southwest Personal Plus 50,000 $0 $69 3/17/2012
Citi Thank You Premier 50,000 $2,500 Waived 4/25/2012
Hawaiian Airlines 35,000 $1,000 $79 6/6/2012
Hawaiian Airlines Signature 35,000 $1,000 $79 6/6/2012
AAdvantage Personal Amex 50,000 $3,000 Waived 9/26/2012
AAdvantage Personal Visa 50,000 $3,000 Waived 9/26/2012
IHG (Priority Club) Visa 80,000 $0 $49 for free night 9/26/2012
Hilton HHonors Signature 50,000 $1,500 Waived 1/4/2013
Hilton HHonors Signature 50,000 $1,500 Waived 1/4/2013
Southwest Business Plus 50,000 $2,000 $69 1/4/2013
US Air Mastercard Premiere 40,000 $0 Waived 1/4/2013
Alaska Airlines Visa 25,000 $0 $75 1/4/2013
AAdvantage Personal MC 30,000 $750 Waived 4/12/2013
Hilton HHonors Amex 50,000 $750 Waived 4/12/2013
Chase Ink Bold 60,000 $5,000 Waived 4/12/2013
Hilton HHonors Reserve 2 free nights $2,500 $95 8/26/2013
Chase Hyatt 2 free nights $1,000 $75 8/26/2013
SPG Preferred Personal 30,000 $5,000 Waived 8/26/2013
Lufthansa Miles & More 50,000 $5,000 $79 12/6/2013
AAdvantage Business MC 50,000 $3,000 Waived 12/6/2013
Chase Freedom 20,000 $500 None 12/6/2013
AAdvantage Executive MC 100,000 $10,000 $250 3/13/2014
AAdvantage Executive MC 100,000 $10,000 $250 3/25/2014
Hilton HHonors Signature 40,000 $1,000 Waived 7/30/2014
United Explorer Visa 50,000 $2,000 Waived 7/30/2014
Alaska Airlines Personal 25,000 $1,000 $75 ($100 credit) 7/30/2014
Alaska Airlines Business 25,000 $0 $75 7/30/2014
Southwest Personal Premier 50,000 $2,000 $99 11/7/2014
AAdvantage Platinum MC 50,000 $3,000 Waived 4/10/2015
Chase Ink Plus 50,000 $5,000 Waived 4/10/2015
Southwest Personal Plus 40,000 $1,000 $69 11/11/2015
Delta Gold Business 50,000 $2,000 Waived 11/11/2015
Barclay Arrival 40,000 $3,000 Waived 11/11/2015
AAdvantage Business Visa 50,000 $3,000 Waived 11/11/2015
36 Cards 1,610,000 $1,487



Marge’s Credit Cards

Card Bonus Minimum Spend Annual Fee, 1st Yr Date Applied
US Air Mastercard Platinum 40,000 $0 $100 for 10k miles 7/24/2011
Southwest Plus Personal 50,000 $0 $69 3/23/2012
Delta Gold Personal 35,000 $3,000 Waived 6/5/2012
AAdvantage Platinum Visa 50,000 $3,000 Waived 7/10/2012
IHG (Priority Club) Visa 80,000 $0 $49 for free night 10/24/2012
Alaska Airlines Personal Visa 25,000 $0 $75 10/24/2012
Hilton HHonors Amex 50,000 $750 Waived 2/1/2013
US Air Mastercard Premiere 40,000 $0 Waived 2/1/2013
Hawaiian Airlines Visa 35,000 $1,000 $79 2/1/2013
Hawaiian Airlines Visa 35,000 $1,000 $79 2/1/2013
Hilton HHonors Signature Visa 40,000 $1,000 Waived 2/1/2013
United Explorer Visa 55,000 $1,000 Waived 2/1/2013
Chase Hyatt 2 Nights $1,000 $75 7/26/2013
AAdvantage Platinum Select MC 50,000 $3,000 Waived 7/26/2013
Chase Sapphire Preferred 45,000 $3,000 Waived 11/3/2013
Alaska Airlines Business Visa 25,000 $0 $75 2/5/2014
Southwest Premiere Personal 50,000 $2,000 $99 2/5/2014
AAdvantage World Citi Business 50,000 $3,000 Waived 2/5/2014
Alaska Airlines Personal Visa 25,000 $0 $75 5/23/2014
Chase Ink Bold 60,000 $5,000 Waived 5/23/2014
Delta Gold Business 50,000 $1,000 Waived 9/7/2014
Delta Gold Personal 50,000 $1,000 Waived 9/7/2014
Marriott Rewards Visa Signature 70,000 $1,000 Waived 9/7/2014
Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve 2 nights $2,500 $95 9/7/2014
Chase Ink Plus 50,000 $5,000 Waived 12/19/2014
Hilton HHonors Signature Visa 40,000 $1,000 Waived 12/19/2014
Club Carlson Premiere Visa 85,000 $2,500 $75 12/19/2014
British Airways Visa 50,000 $2,000 Waived 9/9/2015
Hawaiian Airlines Personal 35,000 $1,000 $89 9/9/2015
AAdvantage Business Visa 50,000 $3,000 Waived 1/30/2016
Alaska Airlines Business 25,000 $0 $75 1/30/2016
Barclays Arrival 40,000 $3,000 Waived 1/30/2016
32 cards 1,385,000 $1,109


Add those up and we’ve been approved for 68 cards for 2,995,000 in bonus miles and points! 

(Let’s just say 3 million for short.)

How much regular spending would you have to do to earn that many miles? Let’s just say, many many more dollars than you and I will ever see. Behold the power of the sign-on bonus!

That doesn’t even count the free hotel nights (8). And yes, we have spent $2,596 in annual fees over the past five years to get those miles. But think of how far $2,596 will get you on a normal vacation. I could see a family of four dropping that much on a single trip to Disney World. Three million points will get you much, much farther.

How much farther? Well, you know we’ve been to Japan, Switzerland, Peru and yes, even Florida, using miles, but on Wednesday I’ll be publishing our complete list of award redemptions and you’ll see just how many of those miles we’ve spent. Here’s a preview: We’re earning them faster than we can spend them.

Do you play the miles and points game? What’s your favorite scheme for getting something for nothing?

How Much Did Our Trip To Japan Cost?

Here it is! A cost breakdown of our entire 10 day trip to Japan. Today we’re going to take a look at just how we kept our costs so low. If you want to “go deep” on what exactly Margie and I did during our trip, you can pick a day below and read the travel log.

Day 1: New York
Day 2: Japan Airlines first class
Day 3: Kyoto
Day 4: Kyoto
Day 5: Kyoto & Osaka
Day 6: Nara
Day 7: Nara
Day 8: Nara & Tokyo
Day 9: Tokyo
Day 10: Tokyo
Day 11: Flight back to New York

I found Japan to be a surprisingly affordable place to visit. And just like our trips to Peru and Switzerland, we kept our total trip costs (including airfare, hotels, transportation, food and activities) around $2,000. Throughout this breakdown, I’ll be using US Dollars instead of yen to make this easier on you. I’ll be converting prices using the early October 2015 exchange rate of 120.4 yen to the dollar.

Total Cost: $2,052.17


 2 Tickets Retail Cost Miles Used Our Cost
Japan Airlines First Class, JFK-NRT, Round Trip $34,000 250,000 American Miles $161
First class seat

First class seat

Flights are usually the most expensive part of any trip. That is, if you’re paying cash. Since we’ve been churning credit cards for the sign-on bonuses, we’ve paid for our last 7 or 8 flights just by using frequent flyer miles. This is a simple way to keep your vacation costs very low, especially if you want to travel abroad like we like to. We are middle class folks, so if it wasn’t for frequent flyer miles, we would never be able to take trips like this.

Japan Airlines First to JFK (7)After getting so many Citi American Airlines cards and Barclays US Airways cards over the years, and especially after those two airlines merged, we are absolutely swimming in American Airlines miles! So we redeemed them to fly first class, which is normally a $17,000 ticket. Although I doubt many people pay the price tag quoted on the Japan Airlines website. I’m guessing most people either have their employer pay for it, or they’re flying as part of a free upgrade or something. But if you were to pay cash… well, you’re better off using that $17,000 for something else. It is just a flight, after all!

Japan Airlines First Class (16)That said, it was incredible! This was our first time flying in honest-to-goodness First Class. The food was phenomenal. The service was ridiculous. The seats turned into comfortable, wide beds. Unfortunately, soon after our trip, American Airlines announced a change to their awards prices, and that same pair of tickets which cost us 250,000 AA miles, or about five credit card bonuses, would now cost us 440,000, or almost nine credit card bonuses, in the future. So this award will be difficult, maybe impossible to get in the future, and at any rate, maybe not even worth spending the miles on.



Transport for 2 Cost Miles Covered
Japan Rail Passes (7 day) $467.00 694 miles
Kyoto Subways $23.07 23 miles
Osaka Subway $7.97 6 miles
Tokyo Subways $35.36 62 miles
Narita Express, Tokyo to Narita Airport $21.91 45 miles
Total $555.31 830 miles
  Avg Cost Per Mile $0.67/mile
Per Person $0.33/mile

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Our Japan Trip, Part 6: Tokyo

Day 1: New York
Day 2: Japan Airlines first class
Day 3: Kyoto
Day 4: Kyoto
Day 5: Kyoto & Osaka
Day 6: Nara
Day 7: Nara
Day 8: Nara & Tokyo
Day 9: Tokyo
Day 10: Tokyo
Day 11: Flight back to New York

Day 10: Tokyo – Fish Market & Robot Restaurant

This  was the day for our official visit to Tsukiji fish market, after our failed attempt the day earlier to see the tuna auction. This was Tuesday, and there was no tuna auction, so we simply went to see the market with all of the other looky-loos. And there was a serious lot of looky-loos.

Tsukiji Fish Market (9)

Marge was shocked that they allowed civilians inside the market at all. IT IS CHAOS. There are motorized carts wheeling this way and that. The floors are wet. There are people wheeling huge cases of fish every which way around you. You can’t help but be in the way. You literally have to be on your toes the entire time. This is, after all, the seafood capital of the world.

Tsukiji Fish Market (5)

Tsukiji Fish Market (7)But look around and you will see it all. Fat tuna carcasses, lobsters you’ve never seen before, and just like the song says, “Fish heads, fish heads.” I hope you like seafood! We should count ourselves as lucky, because in November of this year, the market is moving. Time will tell if the new one will be as chaotic or if it will attract as many tourists, since it won’t be centrally located anymore.

Famously, there are restaurants in the Inner Market here. And I was keen to have sushi for breakfast, because, one, it’s novel, and two, people speak of the Tsukiji tuna with a reverence usually reserved for religion. But once we eventually figured out where the restaurants were, one thing was clear: There were tons of people waiting to get in, and they don’t know what they’re waiting for! Every restaurant is tiny, and had a huge line. And this was breakfast!

Tsukiji Outer MarketThere’s no need to wait in a line! We went back out into the Outer Market on the streets immediately outside, and looked for a restaurant (there are dozens) serving a maguro don. We quickly spotted a small place with no line.

See, here’s the thing: Sushi chefs in Japan are highly trained. It doesn’t matter where you go. Also, we are immediately outside the market. Where do you think all of these restaurants get their fish? The same place: Tsukiji. So why were so many people lined up to wait for an hour or more at some resturants and ignoring others? Mob mentality, I suppose. There was a huge problem of mob mentality in Tokyo, with Japanese and gaijin both.

Tsukiji Marukita (2)

Our breakfast at Marukita was great. We both got a maguro bowl with a variety of tuna and a bowl of seaweedy miso soup. Was it the best tuna I’ve ever had? Yeah, it was. Of course it was! And I didn’t have to wait for it neither.

This was our day for visiting museums. We thought we were being smart by waiting until Tuesday, since most museums are closed on Mondays, and Monday was a holiday anyway. Once again, Japan’s strange holidays came back to bite us. We took the subway all the way out to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. And it was closed. See, when a holiday falls on a Monday, the museums move their normal closed day up to Tuesday, and they are actually open on the Monday! So convoluted these rules! Defeated, we wandered the neighborhood for a while, and eventually subwayed back to our hotel, since basically every museum we could think of was closed.

And now for a tale that will scare the pants off you! You will scream in terror at this one. I hope you’re sitting down, and I hope you don’t have a heart condition.

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Our Japan Trip, Part 5: Tokyo

Day 1: New York
Day 2: Japan Airlines first class
Day 3: Kyoto
Day 4: Kyoto
Day 5: Kyoto & Osaka
Day 6: Nara
Day 7: Nara
Day 8: Nara & Tokyo
Day 9: Tokyo
Day 10: Tokyo
Day 11: Flight back to New York

Day 9: Tokyo – Shibuya, Harajuku, Ikegami Honmon-ji

Monday. We woke up extraordinarily early in order to catch the new hotness of tourist experiences in Tokyo, the Tsukiji Fish Market tuna auction. I’ve thought about this auction since years ago when I watched a video of it. Several warehouse doors open simultaneously, and then the yelling begins. But today it was not to be. I was unaware that Japan celebrates many idiosyncratic holidays, and we attempted to see the auction on Sports Day. No auction on Sports Day! So we had to walk back to our room at the Tokyo Conrad and try to go back to sleep.

Tokyo Conrad BreakfastA few hours later, we went downstairs for the free breakfast, ‘cuz you know I’m not leaving food on the table! They had quite the spread, and I went up for several courses. Then it was time for some Japanese tv before we had to check out and make our way to our next free hotel, the Tokyo Bay Intercontinental. Sadly, we only had one free night at the Conrad, but the Intercontinental was within walking distance.

Tokyo Bay Intercontinental (1)The Intercontinental was a bit gaudy by comparison to the Conrad. Any time there are dawdles hanging off the pillows, I know I’m in the wrong place.

Today was going to be a day for exploring some of the famous neighborhoods in Tokyo. For one, Shibuya, famous to me as the birthplace of Shibuya-kei music as performed by Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, Towa Tei and Cibo Matto, some of my favorite bands in high school. Shibuya is also famous for that ridiculous traffic intersection you see on tv. It’s fun to do it once, but if you end up on the wrong street, as we did, let’s just it gets old very fast.

Shibuya (1)

Shibuya (4)a

Shibuya is overloaded in the way that Times Square is overloaded. But much more orderly. Still, around noon on a Monday, some sidewalks were so packed you could barely move. Commercialism is on full display here with your favorite American brands like Starbucks, Adidas, and the Disney Store rubbing shoulders with weird Japanese doppelgangers with names like 109Mens. Also a tractor trailer advertising the new girl group E-girls, blasting their new putative hit down the streets.

To provide some release from Shibuya, we made our way up to Yoyogi Park and had our normal Family Mart snack on a bench there. I will say, bringing a snack was a mistake because there were carts full of steaming hot food just inside the entrance of Yoyogi. Wish I could’ve tried them.

Yoyogi Park (1)

Yoyogi Officer

Yoyogi is a nice park. Everyone seemed to be having a good time while we were there. The animals were having a good time, too. We saw a bulldog riding a skateboard. (Sorry, no photos) We saw a girl with a rabbit on a leash. (Sorry again) We saw a policeman riding an old bicycle (right).

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Japan Trip, Part 4: Nara and Tokyo

After quite a long break, I am finally getting around to typing up the rest of our trip to Japan. Enjoy looking at our vacation photos!

Day 1: New York
Day 2: Japan Airlines first class
Day 3: Kyoto
Day 4: Kyoto
Day 5: Kyoto & Osaka
Day 6: Nara
Day 7: Nara
Day 8: Nara & Tokyo
Day 9: Tokyo
Day 10: Tokyo
Day 11: Flight back to New York

Day 7: Nara

Of all the places we visited in Japan, Nara is the place I could see myself living in. It’s a small city, easily walkable. The only public transportation needed is a bus which runs in a loop around town. But the economy seems to be doing well enough to support a ton of restaurants. No doubt this is due to the tourist bucks. But it is not nearly as touristy as Kyoto. And for nature, you have the hugely expansive Nara Park.

Our host recommended a bakery called Little Mermaid, which I will now heartily recommend. Here we are with our typical Japanese breakfast of pastries, onigiris, candy, and coffee from 7-11. We’re watching season 3 of the Great British Bakeoff on our tablet. I believe that is Ali fretting over his bake.

Nara Breakfast

Is that laundry drying on the table? I’m not saying.

We spent this day solidly exploring Nara on foot, which is doable. There are some sights on the far west side of the city you’d need a ride for, but you can cover most of downtown on foot.

Nara Todai-ji (7)

We started walking through a neighborhood to get to the sites in Nara Park early in the morning. We started out at Todai-ji temple, which basically serves as an enormous gate. Seeing as how huge it was, we thought we were at the renown main structure, Daibatsu-den, home to the second largest Buddha structure in Japan, and spent some fruitless minutes looking for it. But Daibatsu is actually further down, behind another gate, and require a ticket for entry.

Nara Todai-ji (12)


Nara Todai-ji (14)

THAT’s Daibatsu-den. It’s a shockingly huge wood structure. And like so many other temples in Japan, it’s been rebuilt countless times over the centuries. The Buddha inside is 15 meters tall. It’s so tall that it’s hard to get a good look at it, because it makes the room feel small by comparison.

Nara Todai-ji (18)

There are lots of other massive sculptures in the Daibatsu-den from other temples in the park that had burned long ago. My favorite was the giant stone hand.



Nara Todai-ji (20)

But who am I kidding? You don’t want to see temples and sculptures. You want to see more of the famous Nara deer!

Nara Park (24)

We decided it was our one chance to feed a friendly deer, so we did buy a packet of rice wafers. Although, honestly, these deer will eat anything. One snuck up and ate our map. Continue reading

Is A New York State Lifetime Parks Pass Worth It?

Back in December, we made our annual 6 hour Christmastime sojourn to spend time with family in far western New York. We ended up stopping only once at a rest area to stretch our legs. You just never know what you’re going to find in these places.

Did you know that New York State Thruway rest areas sometimes have a Zoltar fortune telling machine, as seen in the movie Big? I didn’t. I didn’t find out my fortune, but I did see a couple of fully grown adults playing the claw game around midnight. Pity, they didn’t win anything.

I looked through the display of tourist brochures advertising whitewater rafting, roadside attractions and historic homes. And one in particular caught my eye:

A brochure for lifetime New York State hunting and fishing licenses, and parks passes.

Lifetime Parks Pass (1)

A New York Adventure license? Literally a License to Have Adventures?? Sign me up!

I’m aware of the annual New York State parks passes. In fact, we’ve gotten them as Christmas presents in the past. So, the alarm bells go off in my head. A lifetime pass?? Meaning, you pay it once and it’s done? That’s pretty incredible. Rarely do you see a lifetime pass for anything.

Like other personal finance bloggers, Marge and I strategically buy things in the largest size possible to save money, and sometimes bring this strategy to its logical conclusion. I make an annual trip to BJ’s using a free membership offer in the mail so I can buy a year’s worth of toothpaste, toilet paper, etc. And Marge has been told that she’s the only person who buys an 18-month membership at her gym. It’s worth it because the price per month is so low, much cheaper than if you were paying month-to-month. A month-to-month plan would work if you plan on giving up like a punk. But Marge has been going a few times a week for a few years now.If it’s something you’re going to use, it’s usually worth signing up for the longest possible timeframe.

So what about our state parks? Well, hiking and exploring has been a part of our relationship since the beginning. In 2004, thanks to a massively delayed flight, I got a free ticket to anywhere Spirit Airline flew. The most interesting place to fly seemed like Denver, so we bought Marge a ticket and right after we graduated college, we hopped on a plane to Colorado. Mainly we went to see the Rocky Mountains.


Cub Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

Even as far back as spring 2001 we visited Thacher Park (one of the New York state parks covered by the pass) on what might’ve been my first trip to the Albany area.


Thacher Park overlook, spring 2001

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