Category: Travel (page 1 of 3)

How To Camp Successfully: Your Tips and Supplies Guide

Hey everyone! We hope you all had a great Labor Day weekend and unofficial end of summer. We spent our week at one of our favorite places, a campsite in the Thousand Islands region of New York. We go here every year, sleep in a tent by the water, cook over a fire, read, swim, watch wildlife, and generally “get away from it all.” (Then I come back and get depressed over the complicated nature of real life in the real world with all its responsibilities and noise)

I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I decided to write another post about how to have what I think is the perfect camping trip. I noticed that our set-up was much more “minimalist” than all of the other campsites. I want this entry to focus on our camping style which contains none of the fuss that makes camping more work than fun. So if you’ve never gone tent camping or called it quits after a bad experience,

WARNING! For the first time, I am experimenting with affiliate links, and a few of them are in here. We’ve never made a red cent from this blog, and that’s maybe as it should be. But if you buy any of the supplies linked, we will get a cut, but you can be sure, we will not not steer you wrong!

Childless Couple Pro-Tip: The post-Labor Day week is your golden hour!

Chips, soda, music, water, Thousand Island Sun

We’ve spent years returning to this same campsite every summer, and I don’t know why it took us so long to realize that timing makes all the difference. The major benefit/problem with our campsite is how beautiful the location is. Every day we get lookee-loos stumbling on it and saying “Oh this is a nice site. We should try booking this.” Well, you have to get up pretty early in the morning (literally) to book this site before I do. But needless to say, our site and the ones around it are always popular and are booked throughout the summer. That means we have neighbors. Sometimes lots of neighbors. And if you’re looking to having a quiet commune with nature, this is the problem.

But while the campground is fully booked during Labor Day weekend, it is virtually empty by Tuesday! Those kids have to go back to school! That is our car all by its lonesome above. After Labor Day, the only people left are retirees and childless couples… like us! We had a huge swath of riverfront all to ourselves to explore. And since it’s technically still summer, the weather is nice and the water is still as warm as it’s going to get. The first week of September is definitely the time to go camping.

Who needs an RV?

Unlike most of our neighbors at the campground, we use a tent. I see so many people driving in with big campers attached to a truck, or driving a dedicated RV. Then I watch them spend hours setting up and fussing with things, running loud generators, messing with weird pumps and faucets. There always seems to be something that they need to tend to with the RV. Then I imagine the cost of driving the thing. All of our gear fits neatly in a Honda Civic which gets 30 MPG. The typical RV gets 5-10 MPG. It takes us ten gallons to get from home to our campsite.  That means it would take an RV thirty to sixty gallons! Yikes. (Although I was a bit jealous of our neighbors with Airstream and Shasta trailers)

So you’ll need a tent. What makes a good tent? Size is part of it, but smaller is actually better! We don’t recommend overbuying when it comes to tent size. You might want to buy the biggest tent you can afford, but you will be sacrificing quality. Previous to our current tent, we had a $70 Eddie Bauer tent (see left) from Target that leaked like a sieve in any substantial rainfall. Even with the fly on, the rain wouldn’t stay out unless we also put a tarp on top of it all.

Our current tent, under its fly

Our current tent is a 2-3 person tent from Mountain Hard Wear called the Hammerhead 3. The Hammerhead is smaller and much more expensive than our old Eddie Bauer, but is a much better buy. It takes a serious downpour before a drip of water will seep into the sleeping area, which I can only remember happening once or twice. And for nice, dry nights, there is an enormous panel on the front that opens up so you can sleep under the stars, but with a screen to keep the buggies out.

It also has a well-designed fly that extends far away from the tent, so rain doesn’t drip near it. It also creates a vestibule for each sleeper’s door so you can place your shoes outside the tent and they won’t get wet.

Let our neighbors be a cautionary tale to you. Their tent’s fly laid on the tent walls and didn’t even extend to the ground. After their first night, they had to lay all of their clothes and their sleeping bag on the picnic tables to dry out. Everything got wet their first night. A good time was not had by all.

We were worried at first that the Hammerhead might be too small, but there’s enough room for all of our stuff, and since it’s so functional otherwise, we would forgive it a lack of space. You don’t need to enough room for everything you own. You’re supposed to be spending time outside anyway! We keep our luggage in the car. We change clothes in the campground bathroom anyway, so it doesn’t make sense to keep all of our clothes in the tent. We got the Hammerhead as a wedding gift nine years ago and it still performs perfectly. Unfortunately, Mountain Hard Wear doesn’t make this tent anymore, so you’re going to have to do your own research for your tent!

Weather Prepardness

Having a successful camping trip means being prepared for the weather. Keep yourself and your things dry should be your #1 concern, because as soon as your stuff gets wet, your trip can be ruined!

But if you can’t fit your stuff in your tent, where does it go? For years, we tried bringing all of our food and supplies in various plastic containers we had. Inevitably, they weren’t very waterproof and we’d have wet bread, damp matches, etc. A few years ago we invested in two Rubbermaid ActionPacker Storage  boxes. We have a 24 gallon and an 8 gallon box.

This is yet another wise investment for campers. During the off-season, we keep our tent and air mattress in the large box, and all the various things like paper plates, plastic bags, flashlights, aluminum foil, tongs, batteries, etc. in the small box. When it comes time to head to camp, all we do is make sure nothing needs to be replenished in the boxes, and throw the boxes in the car. Then at camp, the big box holds all of our food. Pretty much everything stays in these boxes. We don’t leave anything out. So if it ever rains, we don’t have to worry about it.

Also, TARP IS GOOD. Tarp is must. We usually have a pile of firewood and collected branches. Heaven help you if your firewood gets wet. Having a tarp is a must to throw over the wood pile if there’s a storm coming. All you need is a simple 8×10 foot tarp like this one.

First sign of rain, cover that wood!

Also, don’t be afraid to throw things in the car! Chances are, it won’t be far from your campsite. If the sky suddenly darkens and fat raindrops start falling, we’ve been known to throw things in the trunk. Our chairs especially can’t get wet. There’s foam in the seats and backs, which is great for comfort, but if they get wet, they can take a whole day to dry out. We find these chairs more comfortable than the typical camping chairs which are thin fabric held up by a bunch of poles. I wish I could tell you what these are called, but we bought them twelve years ago and there’s no labels on them!

For a table, we use that simple APAK Goods folding table. There is already a picnic table for doing any serious food prep. The folding table is mostly holding our food and drinks in place


I think you only need two good lights: A interior tent light and a flashlight. Lanterns are good too, but not as useful as a flashlight. Besides, a campfire serves some of the same purpose as a lantern. At this point, for any camping light you should only be looking at LED lights.

We recently did away with our original Coleman tent light. It’s very solidly constructed, but provides only a dim light and really seems to burn through batteries. Now we bought these two E-Trends LED bulbs that simply hang from any hook and provide much more bright light. They’re much lighter than the brick of a Coleman light. Marge said the new lights make our tent look like an art installation.


Key tip: Don’t bring food with you. We made this mistake a bunch of times, bringing not only boxed food from our pantry, but a whole cooler full of ice and meat. It’s all just more to pack. Since the packing process occurs four times (packing up at home, unpacking at camp, packing up at camp, and unpacking at home) you want to make that as painless as possible. More work hinders fun!

Buy all the food you need after you get there. Unless you’re serious backpackers, you won’t be far from civilization. We just make a trip to the local grocery store after we set up camp and buy whatever we want. One of our camping supplies that’s remaining unchanged over 12 years is our Coleman Xtreme Cooler. This was a good buy. I think we picked it up for $25 back in the day. It seems well insulated, and we keep it out of the sun on hot days.

Key tip: Buy block ice, not ice cubes. We put two big ice blocks in this cooler and we are set for at least five days. Ice cubes melt much more quickly because of the amount of surface area, and you’ll be buying a bag or two every other day. Also, instead of draining the ice water from the cooler, leave it in there and keep your food in plastic bags to keep it from getting wet. The water will slow the melting of the remaining ice blocks.

We also keep cooking extremely simple. We only have this very basic Texsport steel camp grill. We cook steaks or hot dogs or toasted sandwiches, veggies wrapped up in foil with seasoning, and have many ingenious s’mores recipes, but those would requite their own entry. Having a propane stove might add convenience, but that also adds more stuff, including propane tanks that need to be re-filled. We try to buy just enough food that we’re able to finish it all by the time we leave. That leads to some creative re-uses, like the pizza weenie (hot dog wrapped in provolone and pepperoni) seen above.

You’ll also probably want to keep a supply of water on hand. We’ve found that this 5 gallon collapsible water tank from Coghlan more than fits our needs for when we want a drink of water or need to wash our hands off.


As described in our earlier camping entry, we have a system for making a comfortable bed. We have the cheapest air mattress sold by Coleman which has held up for years. We inflate this, lay a basic Coleman sleeping bag out on top of the mattress, put a fitted sheet over the whole thing, then sleep under another sheet and a quilt. This feels better than crawling into a sleeping bag because it feels more like a real bed and you have more freedom of movement. We had one cold night this time (40 degrees) and we wished we had brought another blanket, but usually this set-up is sufficient, at least down to 50 degrees. 

The Coleman mattress is nothing special. We had a couple leak early on, but this one has managed to last six or seven years so far. I don’t recommend spending extra money on an air mattress. Our neighbors with the wet clothes had a huge air mattress they had to inflate at the bathrooms and carry back because, I guess, they didn’t have a battery-powered pump. I can’t imagine how much space it took up in the tent.

Fun Stuff

You’re here to have fun, right? What fun stuff are you going to bring? Since everything is going to be exposed to the elements, I recommend buying your stuff used. You don’t want anything expensive to get ruined, right?

We bring kayaks with us. Kayaks are not cheap water toys. You can easily drop several hundred dollars on a small, basic kayak. Years ago, I was having a hell of a time getting used kayaks for cheap on Craigslist. But when that happens, we don’t give up. We put up an ad asking for what we want! Yes, I put up an ad asking for two 12′ long kayaks, looking to pay $250 each. And it worked! (This is also how I found my beloved Schwinn Suburban commuter bicycle for just $140) The people we bought them from were leaving the area and needed to get rid of them.

We also brought our used Kindles with us, loaded with library e-books. The two Kindles cost a total of $30. Sure they are older models, but does that matter? Bringing a Kindle is not only lighter weight-wise compared to paper books, but I’d argue maybe even better for the wet weather. Paper books get damp easily, while you can get a cover for your Kindle which will actually keep the rain out of it.


We are always disgusted by the people eating and shitting in their motor homes, letting the excrement collect either inside their little house or in little gray tanks underneath. Yuck. No thanks. We use the campground bathrooms like civilized people. We each have a little grocery bag with travel size versions of all our toiletries that we take from the car to the bathroom, with a little clamshell container for the soap. That’s it.

Our showers and bathroom breaks are also typically the only time we can charge up our cell phones or iPods. Camping is the time to get away from such nuisances, but we still need to be minimally connected to the world. Using showertime as the only time to add another 10% charge to your phone is also a good way to artificially limit your cell phone use as well.

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.

Continue reading

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

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