A whirlwind layover in Cairo, Egypt

Between arrival into Cairo and leaving for Johannesburg my wife and I had a layover of about nine hours.

While some might view this as a hindrance we preferred to think with an adventurous spirit and booked a layover tour of the city through Egypt Tailor Made tour company. We estimated we really had about six hours of time between exiting the airport and needing to return, so we made sure to explain that through email communication a few weeks in advance. As you will read at the end, the tour company definitely earned their five star rating on TripAdvisor.

Our arrival into Cairo International Airport was hectic to say the least. The customs area is one large room where the mantra “hurry up and wait” is very evident: there were lines everywhere leading in every which way. It took us a few minutes to get our bearings and we realized one of the sets of lines was to get our visa, which we purchased for $25 each. I had read to bring US cash in advance so it was an easy transaction. Afterward, we waited in line for our customs interview, lasting a minute or two. All told it took about 1.5 hours to get through this mess of logistics and people and end up in the arrivals hall where we met our tour guide who recognized me because of a photo I sent in advance.

During our brief time in the city and its surroundings we visited the pyramids at Giza, saw the Sphinx from afar, learned how papyrus is made, sailed down and up the nile for an hour, visited a local market, and ate pigeon, a delicacy in the city. Our Egyptologist tour guide, Seham, was kind, knowledgeable, and conversational throughout the journey. She made sure we were able to get past security and check-in at various sites quickly because we were running behind, she communicated with locals to make sure we knew where to go and what to do, and helped us negotiate prices for a few souvenirs. While I would love to have spent more time in the city and country, it was great to have her with us for the limited time that we had.

After our tour of the city was complete, we headed over to the airport to check in for our last leg to Johannesburg airport and this is where my idea of schemes gets a bit ridiculous.

I had read in advance that there are no showers in any lounges at Cairo International Airport. Despite the fact that this is an airport in the Middle East and so should have showers to make sure any sweat gathered en route could be washed off, it is also a stopover on the way to many other nearby countries where businesspeople would expect to get washed up.

So, in order to make sure we were washed up before our business class EgyptAir flight, we visited the nearby JW Marriott Hotel Cairo and booked a room to take a shower. We didn’t pay for the room in cash – or even points. Instead, I used a free night certificate for a tier 1-5 hotel from my previous Chase Marriott Rewards card that was expiring in August. Before using it I verified that our travel over the next few months would not have taken us to a location where any hotels within that range would have been available (most in NYC or other urban areas are tier 6 and above) and decided to use it for an hour’s luxurious shower purpose.

Our ridiculousness was rewarded with comfortable beds, free slippers, a bathtub and separate shower, fancy creams, lotions, etc and even a welcome message on the TV with my name on it! Even though we only spent one hour there it was a fantastic use of the free night certificate and I’m glad we got to end our stay in Cairo at that hotel – next time we might stay for longer!

A recent trip to Toronto

I recently took a trip to Toronto using Air Canada and was overall pleased with the service, comfort, with some oddities in how my trip occurred. Let me explain.

I booked the flight from LaGuardia to Pearson airport using my Barclaycard Arrival Plus Mastercard, a useful card if you want to get 2 miles for every dollar spent. These miles are quite versatile in that they can used for any kind of airline credit: ticket purchases, fees, etc. They are redeemed in quantities above $100, which is equivalent to 10,000 miles. So, after I paid for my trip using the card, I was able to immediately refund the money used. Here is what it looks like on my online bill:

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Very simple.

On my way there I noticed wonderful in LaGuardia: a pumping/nursing station! While I do not think breastfeeding needs to be a private thing (it’s a natural thing to do…), it is nice to have some privacy for those who want it. Apparently they were put there in May 2015 and are located in Terminal B.

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When I arrived at Toronto’s Pearson Airport I found myself on a huge and quick moving walkway. This was not the normal kind that simply rotates through – it actually extended and flexed in order to move people faster. I had never seen or experienced this before but it was fascinating! I took a video myself but the one in the article is better.

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Finally, a quick note about the actual plane travel itself. Air Canada is a professional carrier! Their in-flight entertainment aboard their small plane was quite wonderful. It was an Embraer 190 and had comfortable seats (if not an enormous amount of legroom) as well as wonderful cabin service. I got a hot tea and small snack on each direction of my journey.

The price of this airline is often more expensive than budget airline WestJet but that sometimes means it really is worth it. In this case, it definitely was!

TSA PreCheck adds 11 new airlines

As many people know, TSA PreCheck allows you more of the former airport experience while going through security, such as:

  • Keeping your shoes on.
  • Not taking your laptop out of your bag.
  • Your liquids and gels can be anywhere, just as long as they are less than 100 mL.

So, it is wonderful news whenever new airlines sign on to the program. As Gary Leff is reporting today, 11 new airlines have added the benefit to their booking process. The website currently lists the following airlines but has put out a press release for the rest: 30precheck

Notable new airlines include:

Make sure to sign up for Global Entry first as it comes with TSA PreCheck included. Some credit cards even provide a fee credit for signing up (notably Citi Prestige and Chase Sapphire Reserve).

How Chase helps keep my business

While I am definitely not beholden to any given bank for my credit card usage (I have AMEX, Chase, Citibank, Bank of America, and Barclays cards at this point) I will point out that Chase does a pretty good job of locking in my loyalty for a few reasons. One of them was emailed to me two days ago:

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Kudos to them for reminding me how many points I have on my Chase Sapphire Preferred account. Even if I may forget at times (or miscalculate) they are there to remind me what I have and how I could use those points. Just look at that photo – it’s quite enticing, to say the least.

Additionally, they keep me in line with their unfortunate 5/24 rule: essentially that any credit card applicant who has opened five new cards (from any bank) in the past 24 months is restricted from certain cards in their repertoire. For example, despite me coveting the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, I was denied because of all my card openings (we didn’t even bother for my wife to try for the same reason).

In conclusion, they are keeping my business for both positive and negative reasons. Fascinating.

Should you keep that credit card or not?

As many of you who read this blog know my wife and I have over 25 credit cards to our names. In some, she is the primary user and in some I am. We have accumulated all these cards because of their sign-up bonuses and various benefits like free checked baggage, access to lounges, elite status, etc. But, every little while it is a good idea to think about if you should keep a card in your wallet (or folio, in our case) or cut it free. In fact, The Points Guy has great posts on checking your credit card inventory once in a while.

The biggest question for me in keeping or cancelling a care is if I am getting a benefit that outweighs the annual fee every year. The easiest examples of “keepers” to me are cards for airlines I or my wife use frequently. For example, we have a United Mileage Plus Explorer card and an AAdvantage Aviator Red Card, each with a $95 annual fee, but we keep them year after year because we get benefits of free checked bags (a $25 benefit each flight per bag) and boarding status (we get to come on the plane earlier and make sure our carry-ons fit in the overhead compartment). As long as we have at least four bag-checks on each airline, it is worth it to keep those cards.

Other cards come with anniversary bonuses. The Amtrak Guest Rewards World card provides an annual Companion pass that, if used correctly, can offset its $79 annual fee. My wife and I travel to Providence, RI frequently enough that a round-trip train ticket + companion makes that doable. The JetBlue Plus Card has a fee of $99 but gives free checked bags and 5,000 points after every account anniversary.

Some cards come with status and not necessarily other benefits you might use. The AMEX Hilton HHonors Surpass card has a $75 annual fee but comes with Gold status at all Hilton-connected hotels. That has given me free room upgrades and free breakfast in at least three situations, totally that much money or more. Additionally, I have earned more points than usual, making it more possible to have a free night sooner. Basically, it does end up paying for itself.

It’s really the big, expensive cards that make me seriously think whether or not it’s worth it to keep them. I currently have a Citi Prestige card, which I got in December 2015 when the sign-up bonus was 50,000 ThankYou points. I applied because I knew that while it has a $450 annual fee, each calendar year it comes with a $250 airline credit. So by using it in 2015 to buy a flight and 2016 to buy a flight, I received $500 in credits to offset the fee the first year. Additionally, it also comes with a host of other benefits including access to the Priority Pass network of lounges across the globe, which my wife and I used extensively during our honeymoon. The fee just came up again and I am debating whether or not to keep the card. It is essentially a $200 annual fee card (with the offset airline credit) in order to access a whole host of lounges and potentially free hotel nights as well. I’m not sure what to do with it but I have some time to decide.

So there you have it – my basic analysis of the different types of benefits you can earn. It really is an individual decision whether or not to keep these cards and, as the Points Guy said at a recent workshop I attended, “do the math.”

Get your negative balance back from a Credit Card

It doesn’t happen often in my experience, but there are times when a person has a negative balance on their credit card. This might happen because you bought something and got a refund after the statement and payment dates so the returned money goes onto your next statement.

This happened to me recently when I bought a ticket in May to visit Florida in September. My wife and I decided not to go and got a full refund due to some flexible rules of our ticket. I had a negative balance on the card so I called them (using my Sapphire Preferred phone number so I was routed right to a person) and easily requested a refund. Not five days later (including a weekend in between) I found a letter in the mail explaining why I was receiving the check. It’s nice to know credit card companies can really work for you when you want them to.

Review: Holiday Garden Inn in Providence is surprisingly amazing

My wife and I spent Thanksgiving in Providence, Rhode Island visiting her relatives and due to a variety of factors we ended up sleeping at the Hilton Garden Inn located in Fox Point, across from India Point Park. We had booked the trip using points and got a great deal. At the time, each night would have been $144 + tax, giving us a less-than ideal valuation rate:

~$320 (for two nights) / 80,000 = $0.004/point (basically 0.4 cents per point)

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Since The Points Guy currently values Hilton at 0.5 cents per point, we were a little below, but that was offset by the fact that we have Gold Status through the AMEX Hilton Surpass card I have. With that benefit, we got upgraded to a larger, nicer room (although without a bathtub – only a large shower), and two free breakfast vouchers to use at their in-hotel restaurant, Drift.

The room was spacious and had a wonderful view of the harbor (this was important since the other side was a loud highway). There were some nice amenities inside including a refrigerator, microwave, and Keurig coffee/tea machine. The TV screen was also enormous (must have been at least 50″) and the bed was large and comfortable (with lights on both sides, but not power ports). Overall, a solidly good room.

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The restaurant is where our experience really shined, though. Of course we used our two vouchers because it was easy and convenient to get a variety of foods in the morning. What we didn’t realize going into the experience was that our experience would be incredible, our food would be amazingly tasty, and we would befriend the breakfast manager, Steven.

When you enter the breakfast area it looks similar to other hotel breakfasts you experience: there are some cold trays filled with yogurt, juices, and fruit; there are some pastries, bagels, and assorted extras; and there is a small kitchen. We found out from the server that we had some simple cook-to-order options: eggs/omelettes, french toast, roasted potatoes, and pancakes. And the drink station had a wide variety to offer, including a layered-lemon-lime water.

Put simply: the food was astonishingly tasty!

We had all the fixings at some point during our two-night stay: the pancakes were fluffy and abosrbed the (real) maple syrup well; the french toast had an amazing cinnamon-y flavoring to it; the omelettes were fluffy and made-to-order with real eggs (not from a carton), and the potatoes were out-of-this-world (paprika can do wonders!).

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Steven, the breakfast manager, was so kind and fun to chat with – we shmoozed for around 20 minutes each morning as he was in and out serving and retrieving orders. It all started because he overheard my wife and I commenting on how lovely and tasty the water was, so he responded and started a conversation. We learned that he takes his business very seriously and plays within whatever limitations he is given by Hilton to make sure the food is scrumptious and real. He also told us about his chef who, while young, has some amazing skill that benefited from immensely.

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There are some restaurants out there that really get what it’s like to provide a nice experience for their customers and Steven’s is one of them. The food was so tasty that despite him giving us a recommendation for another place he is connected to in Providence (Milk Money) we decided to stick around for another meal.

Overall it was an awesome experience in the hotel and the breakfast made it even more so. Thank you to Steven, the hotel staff, and Hilton for allowing us to use our points for this stay!

Small Business Week with The Points Guy

A few weeks ago I received notice that Brian Kelly – also known as The Points Guy (or TPG for short) – was hosting a small gathering at the WeWork facility in the Financial District in order to share points and miles tips and answer questions by local business people. Since I have recently started consulting with friends/acquaintances on how to maximize their use of points (or gather some on their own) I signed up to attend. Boy, was it fun!

When I entered I was greeted by a sign informing me of consent to be filmed and photographed as well as by some small appetizers to satiate me for a small while. The WeWork common space was fairly large and their kitchen had lots of snacks for sale (and beer on tap!).

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TPG got started with a 20-minute presentation covering topics I pretty much already knew – how to maximize credit card bonuses; which cards to hold onto and which to get rid of; what options there are for earning miles outside of flying or simple swiping of the card; etc. The new piece of information I learned was EVRewards, a website devoted to sharing with you how to maximize your points-earning based on what store you are buying from. It’s a cool site that I will add to the list I go through before making a purchase.

After that he started taking numerous questions. He probably did this for about 45 minutes. I was lucky enough to be called on and made a quip about being a math teacher so I appreciated when he said “do the math” as he often does for his monthly valuations of points. I became known as “the teacher” and even had a brief conversation with his Chief Operations Officer. There may be some relationship brewing there that becomes fruitful and interesting in the future.

Finally, before I left I got a chance to get a photo with someone I’ve been trying to meet for almost a year now. I’m so grateful for the opportunity and can’t wait to get more involved!

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Oh, and we got an awesome swag bag, too!

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What’s in my wallet?

I had a fun and quick conversation over dinner last night about credit cards and points: I met a couple who are probably going to get engaged in the near future and they were fascinated by the idea of using credit cards to pay for their wedding and earning sign-up bonuses in order to pay for their honeymoon. I told them it’s what I did with my wife and it’s how we paid around $1,500 for a variety of flights/hotels instead of around $46,000.

In that regard, I often get asked what credit cards am I currently using because – as those in this game know – you don’t use all the cards you have all the time. So, here is a brief summary of what I am currently carrying.

The first thing to note is that I am currently using the Secrid Miniwallet. While in Paris over our honeymoon I went into a store that sold a variety of leather goods and got a chance to hold it in mind hands. I love the fact that it is slim, it carries multiple cards, has space for some cash, and has a handy flicking tool that extends five cards into your direct reach at any moment. I find this immensely useful in daily life.

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I’ll start from inside-out:

  1. Citibank Debit Card. I don’t feel completely beholden to one bank or another but I do find it useful to have this Citibank account since there are ATMs in both Philadelphia and New York (two cities I frequent). Because my wife and I signed up for a joint account three years ago I haven’t gone through with any kind of change. But, I keep it in order to take money out of ATMs and because the Park Slope Food Coop doesn’t take credit cards (more on that later).
  2. Chase Ink Plus Card. I got this card when the sign-up bonus was 60,000 points (usually it’s 50,000) and keep it because it yields some amazing returns on office supplies and technology expenses (5x!). Since I’m a teacher I am constantly buying office supplies (paper, pencil sharpeners, letter trays, etc) and so I maximize the use of the points. It also gives 2x the returns on gas purchases without foreign transaction fees (useful when renting a car abroad, which I do frequently in Toronto). Despite it’s $95 annual fee, I am fairly certain I get the returns necessary to make it worthwhile. Plus, I can refer others to the card and get a hefty bonus.
  3. Chase Sapphire Preferred. This is by far the most used card I have for travel and restaurant expenses since it earns 2x returns on all of those purchases. Whenever we go out to restaurants, stay at hotels (as long as I don’t have a hotel card for those stays), go flying with bookings through Orbitz or Momondo, this is my go-to card. I find it incredibly useful in order to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to variety of airline partners (not so much the hotel ones) and love the fact that when I call the number on the back of the card I get a person without a wait or computerized menus. Finally, this card came in handy this year for me to get back quite a bit of money (around $600) from hotel stays and plane tickets we couldn’t use during our honeymoon because I got sick.
  4. AMEX Business Gold Card. I am currently putting most of my spending on this card in order to earn 75,000 Membership Rewards points that can be transferred to a variety of airlines (including American Airlines, which is my plan). In addition to the bonus and spending on the card, AMEX is currently running a promotion offering 2x the points for small business purchases. I just signed up for Plastiq in order to pay our rent a bit cheaper through a credit card and it actually counts as a small business! By the end of this time, I should have about 90,000 points to play with.
  5. Park Slope Food Coop Membership Card. My wife and I are members of the Park Slope Food Coop, a grocery store and community that has been supportive of us in sickness and health. They sell some amazing produce and food at very low prices and are almost entirely membership run. You simply volunteer 2.75 hours of your time once every 4 weeks (or you can bank time in advance, like I do) and you can get access. It’s a great deal.

I have a variety of other cards that I use sometimes and am constantly reevaluating whether it’s worth it to keep them. I’ll keep you updated as things change.

A new card in my wallet: The AMEX Business Gold

My wife and I average a new credit card every 1-2 months because we can usually make the spending requirements in that time and we don’t want to go overboard with potential of annual fees. Last month it was the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum World Select Mastercard that we earned 50,000 miles on for spending $3,000. We plan on banking those for now and can use them in the near future.

This month I wanted to dive into the AMEX Membership Rewards points because they are transferable to a variety of airline and hotel partners. I found the American Express Business Gold charge card.

Because I wanted to maximize my benefit I was excited to see an increase from the regular 25,000 points to a whopping 50,000 points for the card. The last enticement was that the annual fee of $175 is waived the first year you have the card.

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Then I started looking around for targeted deals. Sometimes if you go on CardMatch from creditcards.com you can find increased offers for the same card. While that tool didn’t work for me, when I clicked a few links I did find an increased offer of 75k points for $10,000 of spending in three months.

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Since my wife and I can pay our rent on a credit card this is doable (it’s sometimes a benefit to live in NYC with high rent). So, I applied and was immediately accepted. I can’t wait to get the card and earn extra points on certain categories (including flights booked directly with an airline).