March 31 2014

Quick Travel Tip: When There’s No Soap Dish

I stayed at three different hotels in the past week and not one of them provided a soap dish for the sink. While a trifling matter in the grand scheme of things, I’m still perplexed when this happens.

Where do they expect guests to put the soap? Directly on a wet sink where it runs all over and never dries? Not to mention the bacteria pick-up in such a situation defeats the purpose of soap – a cleaning agent.

Thankfully all three rooms did have a coffee station such as this:

Coffee station

And each held a pair of coffee cups…with lids which can be improvised for a soap dish. Just invert a lid and place it on the sink’s edge with the spout positioned to drain down.

Soap dish

Hope this helps next time you encounter the same problem. (Obviously do not drink from the same lid afterwards!)

March 28 2014

Don’t Leave Points on the Table – Check Your Big Win Offer

I have long wanted to see the Anne Frank House, and recently the stars aligned to make a quick trip to Amsterdam potentially viable in a few weeks. So I made a reservation at the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, where the cheapest room during my timeframe was priced at €500 (about $680) per night. While I am frugal, I don’t believe that price and value are synonymous. The cheapest option doesn’t necessarily offer the best value, and in this case I think a splurge is justifiable. Situated on the Amstel River and considered the premiere hotel in Amsterdam, the InterContinental is where the champagne-and-caviar crowd lunches.

IHG Amstel exterior

Of course I’m kidding. I’m not paying $680 per night. But before getting to what it cost me (hint: nothing) we have to slog through the “how to.”

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), whose brands are pictured below, is running the Big Win promotion through April 30, 2014.

IHG brands

Big Win is fairly complex as hotel promotions go, and analyzing its value is further complicated because each participant receives a personalized set of “challenges” to complete in order to earn points. Your offer will most likely differ from mine, perhaps vastly. However, if you’re not currently an IHG Rewards Club member, signing up (which is free) will likely get you a generic new-member offer similar to this:

New member Big Win T&Cs hypothetical

One strategy is to complete this challenge in four nights to earn 34k Big Win points.* The key to coming out ahead is rate arbitrage: pay for stays at cheap hotels to earn points, then redeem those points at expensive hotels to save cash. So the analysis boils down to (1) what is the cost for those four nights, and (2) what is the value of the points earned?

  1. Four nights can be had for under $400 quite easily. The challenge above doesn’t specify any brands except Holiday Inn (which is one of the cheaper brands anyway). In many locations it’s common to see sub-$100/night rooms at the lower-cost brands. It won’t be in midtown Manhattan and it will be pretty Spartan, but it is do-able.
  2. Valuing points is subjective, but I generally value one IHG point at $0.007. My actual redemptions are usually much better than that (as we’ll see on my InterContinental Amstel booking), but hotel points are an illiquid asset so I discount their value relative to cash.

In this scenario, after spending $400 on four nights we earn 38,000 points valued at $266.

Revised Big Win points


Worth it?


If you have no other reason to buy four hotel nights then it’s not worth it. Why convert $400 in (liquid) cash to $266 in (illiquid) hotel points?

But…if you have travel plans that require hotel nights anyway, and IHG properties would meet your needs, and there are no superior hotel promotions available to you in the same timeframe, then you leave points on the table by ignoring this promotion. Even if you only need one or two nights and don’t complete the entire challenge, you can still earn points for individual components.

As I mentioned, each member gets a customized challenge based on their stay history. Analyzing my offer is not particularly meaningful in that the offer only applies to me, but it illuminates what is possible when you play the miles and points game and will hopefully help you evaluate your own offer.

My offer is for about 150k points. I can complete it in four nights for under $400 by playing strategically. (By strategically, I mostly mean slumming it at Holiday Inns versus staying at InterContinentals). Since I travel often, I am always needing hotel stays so I would need those four nights regardless.

In addition to 150k Big Win points, I can earn another 20k points or so from the same four nights through a combination of base earnings (every paid stay earns 5 to 10 points/$), bonus earnings (because of my membership level), and other combinable promotions. (I also earn 5 credit card points/$ but for simplicity I have omitted those in the analysis.)

So I earn 170k points valued at $1,190 (assuming 1 point = $0.007) from spending $400 on four hotel nights.

(By the way, absent this promotion, I would’ve shifted my business to another hotel chain and earned points there. This happened to be the best promotion available to me this quarter, but it’s always good to know and evaluate your options.)

So, what did the InterContinental Amstel cost me?

If I spend $400 and earn 170k points, my acquisition cost is $0.0024/point. A reward night at the InterContinental Amstel costs 40k points/night. At that rate, I’m effectively paying $96/night (40k x $0.0024).

Amstel reward rate

$96 is less than the rack rate of a Holiday Inn located 27 miles from the city center on the same dates.

But wait.

I’d argue that the InterContinental Amstel stay actually cost me nothing. Because my $400 was not spent on acquiring hotel points, but on four needed hotel nights.

This is why I play the miles and points game.  😉


*An alternative strategy: complete the challenge in as few as three nights by forgoing the “Change your view” component. Doing so would earn only 31,000 Big Win points but would require one less paid night.

March 27 2014

UPDATED: Hawaii Hotel for $10/Night

UPDATE:  Deal is coming back to life on March 31st.  See details in the link below!

Originally posted on March 17, 2014:

Quick heads up about a promotion at the Ala Moana Hotel in Honolulu for rooms at $10/night between April 1 and May 10.  There is a limited number of rooms available at this rate so if interested I would try to get in on it as soon as the sale starts tomorrow (March 18) at 10AM HST.  I doubt these will last long.

I am not familiar with Honolulu and, as always, I would recommend you read the terms & conditions thoroughly and do your own due diligence.

Good luck!

Category: Deals | LEAVE A COMMENT
March 25 2014

Europeans Label a US Map…and Vice Versa

I saw these on BuzzFeed a few months ago and was reminded of them while pondering my ethnocentric tendencies yesterday.

Brits were asked to label a map of the United States, and the results were…interesting…






Not to be outwitted, Americans’ efforts to label a map of Europe proved equally entertaining.






Enjoy the original BuzzFeed articles here and here.  (Contains mild profanity.)

March 24 2014

Overcoming the Language Barrier

When visiting the Cathedral of Monaco, you can walk behind the altar and view the final resting place of generations of Monaco’s royal family. As an American, I was most interested to see the tomb of Grace Kelly, wife of one of Monaco’s longest-ruling monarchs.

Some of the tombs were adorned with a small bouquet or two, presumably left by tourists. However, the tomb of Princess Grace was bedecked in flowers and tributes.


It was an ordinary day, not her birthday or another important date. Yet even the tomb of her husband – the actual monarch – looked downright austere next to hers.


Although American-born, she was a well-loved figure around the world, so the tribute was not surprising. But it didn’t serve to contain my ethnocentrism either. Even on another continent, amid the tombs of generations upon generations of the local country’s monarchs, things appeared to revolve around the sole American’s tomb.

Indeed, after many other similar experiences, I’ve unfortunately developed an expectation that things revolve around us Americans. I mean, why bother to learn another language when ours is the universal standard? (Although I’m pretttty sure that even English originated in England and not the United States.)

So imagine my dismay when I encountered a non-English speaker in a context where I “expected” everyone to speak English. I can’t even remember the country — it may have been Greece; it definitely was a country whose language I don’t speak. I was inquiring about a VAT refund. The woman behind the desk did not seem to understand my questions, though they were delivered in well-enunciated English, and she certainly did not answer them coherently. Eventually overcome with frustration, I left in disgust.

How utterly embarrassing to admit that only in retrospect did I see what an ethnocentric snob I had been. I, a foreigner in someone else’s country, was disgusted that she didn’t speak my language!

So the moral of the story…don’t be an entitled snob like me. When traveling, anticipate that not everyone in a foreign (to you) country will speak your language.

Which finally brings me to the point of this post! Below are some tips for overcoming language barriers when traveling.

Use Technology

  • Download a translation app to your smartphone or tablet. I like Google Translate – you input a phrase in one language, and it provides both a written and spoken a translation in another. A drawback, however, is that it works best online. You can save (“star”) phrases for offline use, but that’s not necessarily helpful on the fly. There are many other apps available, some of which work offline, so check out the options and see what suits you.
  • A low-tech alternative is to carry a dictionary and point to words in it to communicate. I personally wouldn’t do this as I can’t imagine lugging around a book, but it works for some. (Do yourself a favor and make it a pocket-sized one!)

Stick to the Basics

  • Use basic vocabulary. “Toilet” is more universally recognized and less subject to interpretation than “powder room” or even “restroom.”
  • Likewise, avoid idioms. “How long will it take for the medication to kick in?” makes perfect sense to a fluent English speaker, but someone less fluent may literally translate “kick” and be confused.
  • Write it out. People often understand a written message better than a spoken one. And while they may be pronounced very differently, in written form many words look similar across languages.
  • Seek out young-ish locals. Not being ageist; just sharing my general observation that foreigners under 30 are more likely to speak English.
  • Before struggling to communicate in another language, just ask the person if they speak English. If I initiate communication in my (broken) Spanish, the other person will likely continue in Spanish even if they’re English-fluent.

Plan Ahead

  • Snag a few business cards from your hotel’s front desk. Hand them to taxi drivers in place of struggling to explain where you wish to go.
  • Likewise, ask your hotel concierge to write out the day’s intended destinations in the local language. Show it to taxi drivers as you go from place to place, or to locals when seeking directions.
  • Learn a few key phrases. A little effort goes a long way with locals, and it’s not hard to memorize how to say yes, no, hello, excuse me, and thank you in another language.

And a “Don’t”

  • Don’t simply talk louder in hopes of being understood. The person’s not deaf, they just don’t understand you. To them, yours is the foreign language.

What did I miss? Feel free to share your own tips in the comments so others can benefit.

March 21 2014

~1,000 Free AA Miles


Here’s a pretty painless way to earn free American Airlines miles.  For participating in the AAdvantage® Passport Challenge, you can earn over 10,000 bonus miles.  Although you must fly to earn most of that, you can potentially earn over 1,000 from some quick, free, and occasionally entertaining activities.

I spent about 15 minutes, earned just a tad over 1,000 miles, and even learned a few things about AA’s new product offerings.  Considering a free flight between the US and Europe starts at 20,000 miles on AA, I’d say it was worth the time of day.  I re-played the game (for a family member’s AA account that I manage) for another ~1,000 miles in half the time.

You must like AA on Facebook.  After that, it’s possible to earn ~700 miles answering trivia questions and another ~350 “sharing” on Facebook.

Some tips:

  • To avoid spamming all your Facebook friends you can set the sharing activities visibility to “custom” or “only me.”  On the sharing box that pops up, there is a settings drop-down on the bottom left.  Or you can forgo the sharing activities and still earn up to 700 miles from the trivia games.
  • To maximize earnings, be sure to click on all the games, including the “Fly & Earn” ones at the bottom.
  • Don’t fret about getting the correct answers.  Most of them are evident, you get 2 tries (out of usually 3 possible answers), and a few times I struck out on both tries yet it looked as if I got the miles anyway.  However, so my parents don’t think that the money they spent on my education was a complete waste, let me just say that I nailed most of the questions.

For those who don’t fly AA much, this is also worthwhile as it should extend the expiration date on the miles you already have.

The game ends on May 23, 2014.

March 14 2014

United to Offer Free In-flight Movies & TV for Your Personal Device


Next month, United will roll out a new onboard entertainment system allowing free access to “over 150 movies and nearly 200 TV shows” on your personal device.  You’ll need to download the latest United app from the iTunes® App Store if using a mobile device, but laptops don’t require the app. 

While the announcement states that Android and other mobile devices are not yet fully supported, as an Android user I’m hoping that changes soon.  I mean, a United app for Android already exists…

The United announcement is pasted below, or you can access it at United Hub.

Starting this April, we’re rolling out our new personal device entertainment system onboard select aircraft. With this new service, sponsored by the MileagePlus® Explorer Card, you can choose from over 150 movies and nearly 200 TV shows and watch them free of charge on your personal device.

Most planes will be equipped with the new system very soon, and we’ll have it installed on most domestic aircraft by the end of 2014. We’ll begin on Airbus A319, Airbus A320, Boeing 747-400 and select 777-200 aircraft, followed by additional fleets. In the end, all United-operated flights will have some form of entertainment.

Remember that 48 hours before your flight you can check the amenities you’ll have onboard at or on the United app. (Please note that the amenities are subject to change up until the time of departure.)

How it works

Here’s all you need to do before you board to make your inflight viewing as seamless as possible:

1.    Download the latest United app from the iTunes® App Store if you’ll be using a mobile device. Laptops do not require the app. (Android™ and other mobile devices are not fully supported at this time.)

2.    Charge your device fully.

Once you’re onboard, you’ll see two types of media. Some programs require a browser plug-in on your laptop or the latest United App on your Apple® iOS. Other programs can be watched through the United Portal on your browser with no plug-in or app required.

Just click on what you’d like to watch. You can start, stop, rewind, pause and switch your movie or TV show anytime. It’s that simple.

Category: News, United | LEAVE A COMMENT
March 13 2014

Starbucks Currency Conversion Trick

As a natural consequence of my frugal nature, I hate wastefulness.  Doesn’t much matter what the asset — money, time, effort, natural resources, whatever — wasting it just pains me.

So when I have leftover local currency from a country I’m about to leave, I must unload it efficiently.  I try to only bring/withdraw as much foreign currency as I anticipate needing, but it’s not an exact science and I inevitably have some amount left before returning home.

Some disposal methods I’ve used for small amounts, with their pros and cons:

  • Thow away.  Pros: quick and easy.  Cons: wasteful!
  • Give away at the airport.  Pros: quick and easy.  Cons: socially awkward to explain to a random stranger why you’re giving them money unsolicited.
  • Keep for future use.  Pros: super quick.  Cons: not practical if a return trip is not planned; storage and inventory tracking effort not worthwhile for small amounts.
  • Use a currency exchange service.  Cons: due to fees, not cost effective (and often infeasible) for small amounts, and a kiosk is not always available or conveniently located at the airport. 

SBUX logo

But…if there’s a Starbucks nearby you might be able to use it as an informal currency exchanger.  Just load your Starbucks card using the foreign cash.  The amount loaded should automatically convert to the “base currency” (the currency of the country where the card was originally sold).  Doesn’t take much effort, and many people already have a Starbucks card for the rewards program anyway.

This trick isn’t foolproof; some locations can’t/won’t load your card for whatever reason.  Trial and error is the only way I know of to figure out which ones will, so you may find yourself standing in line only to be rebuffed.  And of course you are converting from one restricted currency (money accepted only in certain countries) to another (credit redeemable only at places that accept Starbucks cards), but the goal is to cut your losses.

March 12 2014

More Car Service Credits: $45 Free from Uber

Uber Logo

UPDATE:  The HIPMUNK code may be maxed out and no longer working (but it doesn’t hurt to try it anyway).  The $20 sign-up credit should still work.


I mentioned the free Lyft credit on Monday, and today there’s one from their competitor.  Having been around longer, Uber’s coverage is wider than Lyft’s and currently spans 32 countries – see their service areas here.

Uber offers a variety of vehicle options including uberBLACK (classic sedan), uberX (more mid-range cars), uberSUV, and even uberMoto (Paris only).

As with Lyft, requesting a ride and paying can be done through the app.  No need to try and hail a cab from the curb or wait in a long taxi line at the airport.

New users can get a total of $45 in credits through the following steps:

  1. Sign up (here’s my referral link).  This should give you a $20 credit.
  2. Log in to your account, go the “promotions” page, and enter promotion code HIPMUNK.  This will give you an additional $25 credit.  (The latter credit expires May 1, 2014.)

Since most taxis gross me out, I use these services for getting between airports and hotels.  But I’m sure they’re just as useful for getting around town at home without having to drive (and pay for parking).

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March 10 2014

Free Lyft Ride

Lyft Car

Lyft, a car service much like Uber, has grown to over 20 cities since launching in 2012 (see their current map).  Distinguishable by bright pink mustaches, I’ve been seeing more and more of the cars on the road.

If you need a ride, whether while traveling or just as a way to get home after a little too much wine at dinner, they can be a good option.  They often cost less than a cab and, given the condition of most city cabs I’ve been in, offer a cleaner, more pleasant ride.

And you don’t need to stand around trying to hail a taxi or to have cash on hand; requesting a ride and making payment are done through the app.  I don’t think it’s just me, but often my attempts to pay a taxi driver by credit card are met with disdain.  And while I have to believe it was a fluke, the last time I tried to hail a cab it literally took over 30 minutes – on Market Street in SF!

Lyft currently has a promotion offering a $25 credit toward your first ride.  If you’re a new user, feel free to use my invite link (we’ll each get the credit):

Safe travels!

Category: Deals | LEAVE A COMMENT