Road Trip Post #7

Arizona is HOT. I mean, many people know that already, but I have experienced it firsthand with crazy temperatures. I’m not one to balk when it gets to the upper 80s; I can handle that. But once it gets to three digits I start being really concerned. So, when in my car driving from Tuscon to Phoenix it not only was over 100, but over 110… my lord. “It’s a dry heat” everyone says, but it’s still super duper Martian hot. I was not so into it. I still did stuff – but it was hard.

So, what did I do? Well, in Tucson, AZ I spent the morning at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which had some amazing examples of the flora and fauna of the area. The saguaro (pronounced suh-wah-row) cacti are beautiful and big and some birds even cut out the insides of them to make nests. It was very cool. There was a part that had reptiles and larger mammals as well as some arachnids. I learned that while the black widow spider is venomous, it’s very chill and won’t bite you unless you really interrupt it’s actions. Good to know.

In the early afternoon I went to the Pima Air and Space Museum. I was lucky to get there when I did (1:30pm) because they closed at 3pm due to extreme temperatures (no kidding). Most of the museum is outside (SO many planes – 787, 747, fighter jets, helicopters, etc). It was truly amazing. I was surprised they had an ANA 787 – I wonder why that company gave it up. I would think they would want to be making money with it. I also got to touch some of these, which was pretty cool.

Then yesterday was my craziest day so far. I met up with a friend in the morning in Phoenix and we decided quickly to escape the 115 degree temperature (not a typo) for Sedona, a place that is usually 20 degrees cooler (read: still 95 degrees). We did a hike to the ‘birthing cave’, which when you look from it to the outside at a certain angles looks a bit what you might imagine when you were pushed out of the uterus…. It was a pretty good hike and we were happy to have some clouds blocking the sky to provide shade.

Those clouds came back with a vengeance later, though. We drove through a monsoon! Who knew Arizona (let alone any of the USA) had monsoons. We had to detour around our original route because a car crashed (and there is only ONE road from Sedona to Phoenix) and hit the monsoon head on. Luckily, my friend was driving (he is local) and so I could relax and watch the droplets on the car/ground. It was really cool to watch the lightning, too. I will always remember my Dad calling it a ‘sound and light show.’

But that wasn’t the craziest aspect of the evening. During the monsoon, a localized pressure system pushed over some power poles near my friend’s house. So, there was no power all night into this morning (and possibly still out now). Basically, everything in his fridge was ruined and we had to sleep somewhere else. Luckily, his parents put us up (which was great) and I shmoozed with them in the morning over breakfast waffles. It was great.

Then, the final thing before coming to San Diego (where the weather changed from 115 to 85 in maybe 45 minutes) was the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum. I saw a bunch of old and somewhat working trains along with a cool exhibit on train signals. I got to go into a model post office train as well as the head of the company’s train (so that we could see how we could live). It was pretty cool.

Great experiences were had and wondering items seen over the past two days. And my purchased paintings didn’t meant in the car! Yippe!

Road Trip Post #6

I have certainly been on the move a lot over the past few days. Texas is BIG so I’ve been doing a lot of driving each day, but I’ve been trying to do it in evening hours so I can be at my destination for the morning activities. It’s working out well so far (as I sit in Deming, NM in order to be that much closer to Tucson, AZ).

As mentioned in the previous post I spent most of July 5 driving to Houston. What is there to do in Houston, you ask? Why, the Space Center, of course! I spent about 4.5 hours there, exploring the various exhibits, looking at the artifacts of the space program (including a used Gemini capsule, the 747 that was used to test and transport space shuttles, and one of only two used Falcon Heavy rockets on display in the world). There were so many people there – I’m glad I got there on the earlier side. Oh, I also got to touch a 3.8 billion year old moon rock! So cool. My one criticism: they contrasted Earth and Mars in one exhibit by saying Earth does not have an elliptical orbit and Mars does, when in fact both do.

I spent the rest of the day drivintg to San Antonio. On route, I got a chance to experience Buc-ee’s in all it’s glory. I still am hesitant to agree that it is the #1 convenience store in the country because it’s more like a mini-Walmart with way better food.

In San Antonio I spent two hours visiting the Alamo, which I learned is spanish for Cottonwood. There was a lot of great historical explanations of what happened between Spain, Mexico, and the early United States. I reminisced about watching the Davy Crockett VHS my Dad bought us years prior. I took an audio tour that was totally worth the $9 price tag. And I was happy to have brought my umbrella because it rained on and off. Then I drove off towards New Mexico!

Today I visited both Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Parks. They are both amazing. Despite not having a reservation I was still able to buy a ticket at Carlsbad Caverns for a 9:30am entry. I went down the elevator and explored the ‘Big Room.’ It is MASSIVE. So many awesome stalactites, stalagmites, and other speleothems (look it up yourself). Totally worth the $0 I paid because my friends gave me their leftover National Park Pass (totally worth it and I would have paid had I not gotten one for free).

White Sands was also really cool. It is what is says it is: WHITE sand. Interestingly, since it’s made of gypsum, it doesn’t retain heat like the quartz of regular beach sand does. So, when I asked what type of footware to use of the ranger there, she told me barefoot is her preferred method! I spent some time walking around in the 90+ degree heat (drinking plenty of water) and then sledded down the sides of some of the dunes. It would have been more fun had I had more skill. But it was truly a beautiful marvel we have in this country.

Tomorrow, to Tucson, AZ and further points west!

Road Trip Post #5

I am writing this from hot, hot Texas! I spent about five hours driving today to get through the various swamps of Lousiana. Man, so much water everywhere and so many bridges. I-10 is basically a straight line from New Orleans into Texas. Take it some time.

Anyway, New Orleans was awesome! I spent so much time walking around and checking out stores, listening to random music on the sidewalks, and eating such good food. It was a bit rainy at times – apparently June/July are the worst weather months to visit because of that. But, it was still fun. Shoutout to all those who sent recommendations. Here is a little summary of what I did:

I haven’t been to New Orleans in 13 years and I will make it a point to return sooner than that. It was super fun and awesome and tasty and musical. Strongly recommended to ANYONE.

Road Trip Post #4

The flat tire has been dealt with and it didn’t even inconvenience me too much. I had AAA tow me to a local Toyota dealership and had a wonderful conversation with the driver and technician. I even convinced the technician to get a book called Grit to learn a bit more about persistence and growth mindset (he wants to finish his college degree at some point). 

So they dropped me and my car off at the dealership and they fixed the issue. Unfortunately, a nail had somehow cut into the side of the tire so I had to replace it entirely, but according to them the rest of the wheels are in tip top shape and don’t need to be replaced. I am going to trust their judgement and move on with my day.

I did take Lyft to/from the Delta Flight Museum, though, which was quite fun. It was smaller than I had hoped, but I guess having a museum in an old hangar at an airport means it can’t be too big. They had some old planes to view, including an example crop duster which was the foundation of Delta before it was Delta back in the early 1900s. I got a chance to walk through a 767 and a 747 on site and viewed some of the tiny spaces they put flight attendants and pilots for rest on long flights. 

While I was gone I got a call from a representative at the dealership who offered to buy my car as some sort of program. I thought about it but decided not to go through with it because I NEED THE CAR FOR THE ROAD TRIP. I guess that’s a bit on the nose, but it seems like a valid point. 

Anyway, I look forward to a couple of fun days in New Orleans, despite some rain that will be making it a bit wet. 

Road Trip Post #3

It had to happen sometime and I’m glad it happened when I was at an airport hotel in Atlanta: I got a flat tire. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but the hub cap is missing and the tire pressure light turned on while i was driving here yesterday. I didn’t know what it was until I looked it up this morning and lo and behold – flat. So, I await my AAA tow to the local Toyota dealership to fix it. It’s only annoying insomuch as I wanted to be at the Delta Flight Museum by now and I will have less time to spend there.

Yesterday was pretty spectacular, though. Instead of leaving Asheville to explore some local parks or go for a hike, I hung out and explored the city with a friend who happened to be in town! We went to the Western North Carolina Farmer’s Market, got a recommendation to have a drink at the Grove Park Inn, and then ate some lunch by the French Broad River at a cool taco spot. It was an awesome exploration day! Then, I took leave of her and drove to Atlanta. I will say that the drive was an interesting urban contrast to my drive through West Virginia. There was just so much more stuff – not necessarily tall buildings, but enough strip malls along the way to make me not feel like I was in the middle of nowhere, which has been helpful in this flat tire experience.

Anyway, I hope to get this sorted out so I can continue my visit to Atlanta because I need to leave tonight to head down to New Orleans!

Oh, and I will also be trying to share my odometer with you on a regular basis so you can see how far I’ve driven! I started the road trip with something like 116,000 miles on the car.

Road Trip Post #2

​So it has been a few days since my last post. I guess that happens when you are enjoying yourself! 

I spent a coup​​le of wonderful days in Baltimore,  hanging out with some friends and exploring the local frozen dessert options. BMore Licks has very generous portions of their milkshakes that are of perfect thickness and great flavor! Tropicool has water ice a-la Rita’s but with more esoteric flavors. Birthday cake?!! So good. 

Then I made my way south for the first day of big driving. I stopped off in DC for breakfast with a friend at a great Ethiopian diner called Heat Da Spot Cafe. Super tasty stuff. Over the course of the four hours it took me to drive to my first destination in West Virginia, I think I had cell service for about 25% of it. The things you learn. 

I was trying to visit the Green Bank observatory and Cass Scenic Railroad Park. But alas the observatory was closed (could only see it from afar) and the Cass train wasn’t even there. But, they did have tasty milkshakes (detecting a theme here?) and some WiFi so I could chart my next stop. 

I successfully used the HotelTonight app to book a discounted room at a Ramada inn at Wytheville, VA. It was just fine and cheap enough and close to Asheville for my Biltmore estate visit today! Speaking of which, this place is AWESOME. I’ve been there twice before: once when I was a kid and once on the first spring break I ever had as a teacher. It is such a cool building – so much history and architecture. I love coming because I learn something new each time.

Here is a short summary of what I did and what I learned:

  • I checked out the gardens. They were originally full of fruit and vegetables (a-la Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of Central and Prospect Parks in NYC) but George Vanderbilt (the guy who owned it) wanted to just have it be a ‘looking at’ kind of thing. So, roses it was.
  • The botanic garden area had a train show going on like the one at the Bronx. It was so cool!
  • The rooftop copper tops have GV logo embedded in them for George Vanderbilt.
  • The 1895 ammonia-based refrigerator is still cool.
  • The indoor pool has a leak and can’t be used. This was discovered sometime in the last 20 years when there was a party that was thrown and the pool was filled. In the morning after the party, the sub-basement was flooded. Oopsy!
  • The limestone on the outside of the structure was too shiny and reflective of the sun so they had to be ‘crandalled‘ in order to reduce the brightness.
  • The Biltmore creamery milkshakes are on point.

Road Trip Post #1

If you know me you will probably be unsurprised that I have favorite rest stops along the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and New York City. In fact, I’ve rated one that was not up to par in my opinion (spoiler: I like Thomas Edison the most on the NJ Turnpike and have always been partial to Chesapeake House when driving further south).

It took me about four hours to drive down (more than I wanted, but not so b ad) and I arrived at my first destination (Baltimore, MD) with much glee (and not just because I got to sign a bit of Hairspray!). I’m here for a few days, checking out the sites and visiting people. This morning I went for a lovely walk around a bit of the waterfront.

Most importantly, however, the milkshake game of BMore Licks is totally up to snuff. I had a chocolate PB cup one that had hints of coffee (unexpected but still tasty). And there were some awesome murals on the side of the building. I imagine it doesn’t rival Philly’s Mural Arts Program but it was nice to see.

I’ll have more to write about in the next several days as I explore more. For now, enjoy this photo of me drinking a wonderful milkshake!

Road Trip Post #0

The day before any trip I take has some measure of excitement and trepidation. This time it’s a bit more intense as I haven’t really traveled that much over the past 15 months due to the pandemic that is still affecting the globe (my friends in Australia seem to have it pretty bad right now). But, I am lucky enough to be able to take a road trip this summer, starting tomorrow. My bags are (mostly) packed and I’m (pretty) ready to go.

If you are curious to check my general route, here it is in a shiny app/website called Roadtrippers. I hadn’t used them before planning this trip and I can say so far that it’s pretty awesome. There are good estimates of travel time, gas consumption, and if you zoom in there are places that pop up that might be interesting for you to go. I look forward to using it as a tool for the trip.

I am also using GasBuddy, a tool for finding and paying for gas that can save you money. I can’t speak for its efficacy yet but there is a $9.99/month premium subscription I just signed up for that said I could save 25 cents/gallon so I’m going to try it out. More reports on that soon.

My first stop is Baltimore to see some friends, check out some cool neighborhoods/museums, and generally hang around. I’ll keep you updated here. Subscribe if you want email updates!

Success with manufactured spending in Providence, RI

I spent much of the past week in Providence, RI at a professional development workshop learning some new coding skills for the computer science class that I teach. During that time I decided to take a first real stab at manufactured spending and had some wonderful success.

For those unaware of the term, manufactured spending means using your credit card to somehow buy an item (therefore earning points/miles on said credit card), then somehow liquidating that item back into your bank account to pay off the credit card debt you just accrued. I have done it once or twice before in NYC and it is notoriously difficult to liquidate some of the items you can buy. The one method I have heard of working very well was using gift cards to purchase money orders, specifically at a Walmart, where fees are low and opportunity is high.

So, I took this knowledge and put it into action. While staying at the Providence Marriott Downtown, I used the fact that I have a Chase Ink Cash card that earns me 5x the points when purchasing items at office supplies stores to buy loads of Visa gift cards at the Staples just across the street. Then, I took a nice walk to the local Walmart to buy money orders with those gift cards.

The fees involved were not that bad. To buy a $200 gift card at Staples costs $6.95 in fees each and to buy a money order at Walmart is $0.88 for up to a $2000 money order. In total, I was spending $28.68 to earn 4,139 points. So, if you do the math, it cost me roughly 0.69 cents for each point that I earned. Since The Points Guy values each of them at around 2.0 cents for each point, I did quite a good job getting some new value. Not too shabby for a first real try.

The big question now is whether or not I can duplicate this process in Brooklyn. I already know where to get the gift cards (Staples nearby me) but when I’ve tried to find a source to liquidate near me I have come up short. I know there is a Walmart in New Jersey and one in Long Island that are public transit accessible, but it still adds cost. Still searching!

Transitioning to a new method of miles earning

Unfortunately over the past few months various companies have started to deny my credit card applications, my main source of quickly-earned miles. And the main reason: I have had too many applications. I suppose it had to happen sometime but it is aggravating that I need to do something different.

To that end I am now exploring the world of Manufactured Spending. There are a variety of ways to do it but the one that I am interested in will likely involved purchasing gift cards with credit cards (the moment that you earn the points) and then liquidating them somehow. The best way of doing so is to use the gift cards to buy money orders at a check-cashing place or major big-box store like Walmart. Then you can deposit those money orders in your bank account to pay off the credit card you used to buy the gift card in the first place.

It gets a bit complicated and takes some time (also there are fees involved) but it can be easily worth it. The only thing I need to find out is where I can easily get rid of gift cards in my neighborhood (or nearby). Here are the two main pathways I am considering:

  1. There is a Simon’s Mall in Newport, NJ that will sell gift cards in maximum of $500 increments, with a fee of $3.95 for each. That would earn me 500 points each time when using any of my credit cards. Let’s tag the metric at $7.90 for 1000 points.
  2. I can do something similar at Staples where I have a 5x multiplier on one of my credit cards. I could buy $200 gift cards for $6.95 each and get 1000 points that way. Still, I have to get a way to liquidate the cards.

If anyone out there knows of good check-cashing places or big-box stores in Brooklyn or Manhattan that sell money orders for cheap to debit card users, let me know.