With Bonus, Buy Amtrak Points Now and Redeem for Train Tickets Later

In general I don’t recommend buying points for travel, since the points needed in order to get a ticket are often more expensive than just getting a ticket outright. But with bonuses, that might not be always the case. Throughout the month of September 2011, Amtrak is offering a 50% bonus for any point purchases over 5,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points, which can be redeemed for Amtrak travel on any of its routes (as well as several other things including hotel stays). 5,000 points plus the 2,500 bonus points is sold for $137.50, and the maximum points you can buy, 10,000 plus 5,000 bonus points costs $275.

Base Points

Bonus Points

Total Points

Price

500 0 500 $13.75
1,000 0 1,000 $27.50
2,000 0 2,000 $55.00
3,000 0 3,000 $82.50
4,000 0 4,000 $110.00
5,000 2,500 7,500 $137.50
6,000 3,000 9,000 $165.00
7,000 3,500 10,500 $192.50
8,000 4,000 12,000 $220.00
9,000 4,500 13,500 $247.50
10,000 5,000 15,000 $275.00

For those of you who travel the Northeast Regional line, which goes through DC, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, buying the points and redeeming them for travel could save you quite a bit money. The price of a one-way ticket on the Northeast Regional varies significantly based on the distance you travel and the time of day, but as an example, a ticket from New York to Washington, DC, this coming Sunday ranges from $78 if you are willing to take an 8 AM train to $134 if you want to travel in the early afternoon. Tickets on Friday afternoon may be even more expensive.

On the other hand, 3,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points can always be redeemed for a one-way ticket on the Northeast Regional, regardless of the day, time, or distance traveled. So if you buy 7,500 points for $137.50 during this promotion (5,000+2,500), you could redeem your points for 2 Northeast Regional tickets between New York and DC this weekend, and save between $18.50 and $130.50 depending on which ticket you book; and you’d still have some points left over for your next trip. At $275 for 15,000 points (10,000+5,000), you can get 5 one-way tickets on the Northeast Regional, saving even more.

You can find similar savings on the other coast. Tickets on several train lines going through California, including the Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, and Pacific Surfliner line, can be exchanged for 1,000 Amtrak points each way. With the 50% bonus on purchases, you can get 12 tickets on any of these Special Routes for just $220 (8,000+4,000 points for $220). In contrast, a ticket from Santa Barbara to San Diego this coming Sunday costs $41 at any time, so 12 of them would come out $492, or more than twice as much. Tickets from Sacramento to Oakland are $26 this weekend, so using Amtrak points instead would still save you money.

This 50% bonus promotion is running until September 30, 2011, and Amtrak Guest Rewards points expire only after you go 36 months without purchasing any Amtrak tickets. That means you can take advantage of the bonus now and hold onto your points until you are ready to purchase a ticket any time over the next 3 years. The only downside of this promotion, if you can count that as one, is that tickets exchanged through points cannot earn points themselves. Nonetheless, the huge savings should more than make up for that small loss.

Special thanks to the Loyalty Traveler.

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More on the Zipcar Deals

Yesterday I wrote a post on three current Zipcar offers: a deal from LivingSocial, an $80 referral bonus from Zipcar, and a reimbursement for residents of the City of Alexandria.

It looks like LivingSocial has extended its Daily Deal for another day, so you now have until tonight at midnight to get a Zipcar membership for a year and $30 in driving credit for $29.

an updated version of LivingSocial's DC Zipcar deal

I also heard back from LivingSocial and Alexandria’s Office of Transit Services, and have some updated information:

  1. It is not clearly stated on the terms and conditions, but the LivingSocial deal does include the Zipcar application fee. So considering that the application fee is usually $25, and the annual fee can be as high as $60, this deal really offers a savings of as much as $86! So if you are still not a Zipcar member and need a nudge to join, this is it.
  2. The LivingSocial deal for DC has been updated to include residents of “the greater D.C. metro area.” Yesterday’s offer was only available to DC residents, but now those of you in Virginia and Maryland can take advantage of it too.
  3. If you’re a resident of the City of Alexandria, it is unclear whether you can stack up the LivingSocial deal with the reimbursement (though you can still combine a referral bonus with the reimbursement). From an email I received from the Office of Transit Services:

“As long as you send us your proof of payment we can reimburse your costs. However, this [LivingSocial offer] is an exception to our program and we will probably not allow this when and if other deals like this pop up for Zipcar.”

This is a non-committal response, though completely reasonable on their part. On one hand, they could argue that LivingSocial deal is already effectively waiving your application and first year annual fee, since the $29 you pay gets converted into $30 in driving credit, so there’s nothing to be reimbursed for. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to try. If you get today’s Zipcar deal and live in Alexandria, send in the “Reimbursement Request” and “Initial Survey” forms and see what happens. Best case scenario, you get the reimbursement, and the whole bundle comes out free for you. Worst case scenario, you still saved $86.

Three Zipcar Deals to Go Around

It took me a while to join Zipcar. The problem was that I would look into signing up whenever I needed a car right then and there, but Zipcar membership doesn’t go through immediately since they have to verify your driver’s license information for insurance purposes and get the Zipcar card (which unlocks the car doors) to you. So ultimately the key was to join when I didn’t actually need a car, and then have the option of using a car right then and there the next time I did need one. And now, even though I have a car of my own, I still keep my Zipcar membership for when I travel, since members have access to cars in any Zipcar city.

If you, like I was, don’t need to join Zipcar today but should at some point, there are several deals going on to help you make it happen now.

First, LivingSocial is running a Daily Deal today for individuals who join Zipcar: a one-year membership plus $30 in driving credit for $29. Since the annual membership fee is technically $60, this deal can save you quite a bit of money. I write “technically,” though, since you are very likely to qualify for a discount through one of your connections, including your university (as a student or alumni), employer, or even your building. Today’s LivingSocial deal is available in several cities, including Boston, DC, New York, and San Francisco. Just make sure to get the deal for your city since the fine print on the bottom of each offer limits the coupon to residents of that area. After you buy your coupon, you have until October 26, 2011 to sign up for Zipcar and use the $30 driving credit.

But here’s a potentially better deal. Or one worth considering if you miss today’s LivingSocial offer. Until the end of August 2011, Zipcar is offering an $80 referral bonus which can be split between the referer and referee, or can be given away entirely to the referee. So, if you have a good friend who is a Zipcar member, ask him/her to send you an invite, and make sure to sign up by August 31st. If you qualify for an annual fee discount (mine for example is just $25) and your friend lets you keep the bonus, this referral could turn out to be an even better deal than the LivingSocial one.

today's LivingSocial DC deal

Keep in mind that the referral bonus is always available, though the driving credit outside the promotion period is usually $50, which can still be split or given to the referee. This bonus is also much less restrictive than the LivingSocial deal since the latter for the DC area, for example, is limited to “Washington D.C. residents only”. If you live in the Beltway but have an address in Virginia or Maryland, you may have to go with the referral bonus anyway since you may not be eligible for today’s LivingSocial DC offer.

If you live in the city of Alexandria in Virginia, there’s also a third Zipcar deal worth taking into account. The City of Alexandria’s Office of Transit Services and Programs is currently reimbursing the Zipcar application and first year membership fees for Alexandria residents. Since the Zipcar application fee is currently $25 and the annual fee can come up to $60 without a discount, this can translate into some huge savings! There’s no official end-date for this offer, but it’s probably best to apply for it sooner than later. All you need to do is fill out the “Reimbursement Request” and “Initial Survey” forms and mail it to the Office of Transit Services in Alexandria after you sign up for Zipcar. And there’s no reason you can’t stack up the referral bonus and the fee reimbursement, since one is a driving credit and the other takes care of your fees.

Whichever discount(s) you choose to use, if you’ve been meaning to get a Zipcar membership, it seems like now’s time to do it. Don’t wait until you actually need it, since membership doesn’t come through immediately, and, even worse, there probably won’t be as many great deals available then.

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What the Airline Tax Holiday and the Tax Reinstatement Mean for Your Wallet

The short answer: probably nothing.

On July 22, 2011, Congress failed to extend the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) budget and, along with it, airlines’ authority to collect taxes to fund the FAA, leading to a lot of questions and concerns about air travel in the US. Among these were whether this would bring furloughs for employees in the FAA (yes); if this would affect traffic control (supposedly no); and what would happen to ticket prices and who would be responsible for the uncollected taxes.

The third question was answered by each airline: most airlines raised fares by the amount of the taxes, so that consumers faced the same prices as before the tax expiration. Notable exceptions included Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian, and Spirit, which maintained their fares and passed the tax savings onto consumers. There were serious concerns, however, that once Congress reinstated the airlines’ authority to collect taxes, customers who didn’t pay taxes may be required to pay them anyway – perhaps the airlines that increased their fares to compensate for the tax expiration were doing customers a favor by effectively collecting the taxes preemptively?

Photo credit: Alaskan Dude (Creative Commons)

This confusion was finally solved last week, when Congress passed a retroactive reinstatement of the FAA’s budget from July 23rd.

The bad news: By making the reinstatement retroactive, Congress stated that taxes were technically applicable to the suspension period, July 23-Aug 8. Before the reinstatement, there had been talk that passengers who paid taxes on their tickets (because they purchased them before July 23rd) but flew during the suspension period might be due a refund on the taxes collected. The retroactivity has dismissed this possibility. No matter when you purchased your tickets or flew, you cannot get an airline tax refund.

The good news: The IRS is giving a relief for passengers who did not pay and airlines that did not collect taxes during the FAA budget lapse. This news may be better for airlines than for you, but is good nonetheless.  Since airlines collect about $200 million in taxes per week for the FAA, this two-week suspension generated almost $400 million in cumulative profits for the airlines that raised their tickets to match the expired FAA taxes – which they now get to keep.

For you, the relief means that if you managed to snag a ticket during that the suspension, at least you don’t owe any taxes on the ticket either. That would have been a savings of 7.5% on the base fare plus $3.70 if flying domestically, $8.20 if flying internationally to/from Alaska or Hawaii, or $16.30 for international flights to/from anywhere else, but since most airlines increased fares accordingly, you likely did not feel any difference in your wallet. On the plus side, with the reinstatement of taxes, at least airlines are lowering ticket prices back to pre-July 23rd levels.

So, unless you are one of the lucky few who scored tickets with an airline that did not raise prices during the suspension, this FAA budget story should not affect your wallet: ticket prices have stayed the same throughout since most airlines raised ticket prices (earning several millions along the way) when taxes expired and lowered them now that the taxes are back.

Bikes on a Plane

In a recent conversation with a friend, I learned that she was considering taking a 9-hour-or-more bus ride from Boston to Washington, DC, to bring her bike down. The alternative, she thought, was limited to having it sent through Fedex or UPS.

Little did she know that most airlines actually allow you to check-in a bike when you fly. Though taking the bus may still be the cheapest way to travel between DC and Boston, if you decide to face that trip with a bike, it should at least be an informed decision, with the knowledge that your bike could make it on a plane and of how much that would cost too. Moreover, airlines do not charge extra when flying bikes cross-country instead, while Fedex and UPS prices will be higher and the bus may be a much less realistic option.

Below is a table with some of the main US-based airlines and their rules for checking-in bikes. Make sure to look at it before moving, or if you find a great bike deal when visiting friends or family in another town, or when, like my friend, you want to rescue the bike that has been sitting in your relatives’ basement for all of those years in which you were living a transient life for school and work.

Airline Cost Packaging Requirements/ Restrictions
AirTran $79 Must be packed in a box
Alaska Airlines Bikes are treated as regular or oversize luggage. There is a $20 charge for the first 3 checked luggage items. Oversize items measuring 63-80 inches incur an additional $50; items smaller than 62 inches do not have an extra fee and those between 81 and 115 inches incur a $75 fee. Can be packed on any soft or hard case designed for transporting bikes
American Airlines $150 for any bike larger than 62 inches or over 50 lbs. Smaller bikes are treated as regular checked luggage, at $25 for the first item. Can be packed on either a hard-sided case or a bike bag, but bikes not in a hard-sided case are considered “fragile,” meaning that the airline does not accept liability for damages.
Continental $100 for domestic flights and $200 for international flights for any bike larger than 62 inches or 50 lbs. Smaller bikes are treated as regular checked luggage, with the fee for the first item at $25 in domestic flights and free internationally. There are strict rules for packaging, including fixing the handlebars sideways and removing pedals, and the airline is not liable to damage if these are not followed. Interestingly, Continental also sells bicycle boxes for $25 at all of its airport desks except for the one at Reagan National in DC.
Delta Airlines $150 flying out of a US airport or other airports around the world (excluding Canada and the EU); 150 Canadian dollars when flying from Canada; and 150 Euros when flying from the EU. The only exception is for travel to/from Brazil, for which the fee is $75. Excess fees apply to bikes weighting more than 70 lbs. Can be packed in a cardboard or canvas container.
Frontier Airlines A bicycle may be treated as overweight, though not oversize checked-in items. As such, it incurs the base $20 fee for being a checked-in item, and, if it weighs more than 50 lbs, another $75 as well. The airline is not liable for damage to bikes not packaged in a hard-sided case.
Hawaiian Airlines $35 for flights within the state of Hawaii, and $100 for flights between Hawaii and the Continental US, Japan, and Hawaiian’s other Pacific destinations. If you are flying more than one of these segments, such as from the Continental US to Japan via Hawaii, you will be charged the fee for each segment. Bikes weighing more than 50 lbs incur an extra charge: $25 when flying within Hawaii and $50 when flying to/from or within the Continental US. Bikes must be packed in a box or hard case. They are also transported on a space-available basis, meaning that the bike might not make it on the same flight as you, and, if not, Hawaiian is not responsible for the ground transportation to get it delivered from the airport to you as it is for suitcases.
JetBlue $50 for domestic flights and $80 for international flights. Bikes are not accepted on flights to/from the Dominican Republic. Bikes under 62 inches and 50 lbs count as a checked bag, to which JetBlue’s “first checked bag free” policy applies. Bikes can be packed in hard-sided cases, plastic foam, or a cardboard box. The airline is not liable for any bike lost or damaged.
Southwest $50 for bikes larger than 62 inches or 50 lbs. Smaller bikes count as regular luggage and can be checked-in for free. Bikes can be packed in a hard-sided case, a cardboard box, or a soft-sided case, but the airline has limited liability for bikes packaged in the latter two.
Spirit Airlines $100 plus a checked luggage fee starting at $28 (actual price depends on whether it is paid online or at the counter) Must be packed in a cardboard or hard-cased container
United $100 for travel within the US, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands; $200 when traveling from the US to other continents. The maximum allowed weight for bikes is 50 lbs, and they must be packed in a “durable, protective case, bag or box.”
US Airways $200 for bikes over 62 inches. Bikes smaller than 62 inches count as a regular checked bag, with fees starting at $25. Bikes can be packed in a cardboard, hard-case bike container, or wrapped in plastic or foam. If it is only wrapped, the passenger must sign a form releasing the airline from any liability.
Virgin America $50 if it weighs up to 50 lbs. If it weighs more than 50 lbs, the additional overweight fees assessed range from $50 to $100 and depend on the weight as well as the total number of suitcases you are checking in. Bikes should be packed in a hard case or a padded bike case. The airline also accepts but is not liable for those packed in cardboard boxes or foam.

DC Area: Today, Get a Little More for Donating Your Clunker

If you are in or close to Washington, DC, today might be the perfect day to donate your clunker and get a little bit more for that.  In general, donating your car can be a good deal, as it should ideally lower your gas and maintenance cost and offer a hefty tax deduction through itemizing.  But today, Zipcar is offering a little more to boost the incentive.  From 6 to 8:30pm tonight, Zipcar will be hosting an event in DC to collect car donations for WAMU 88.5 – the American University Radio that airs NPR every weekday morning, – and will be giving a free membership for one year and $75 in driving credit in exchange.  Also, if you refer a friend to donate a car, you get $50 in driving credit as well. 

The event will be held at WestEnd 25 (1255 25th St, NW) tonight, April 8, 2010, and the email address to get more information or RSVP is rsvpdc (at) zipcar (dot) com.  If you do not live in the DC area or can’t donate your car today, it might still be worth asking about other events or visiting Charitable Auto Resources, who will be coordinating the donation processing in this event and works to help charities nation-wide receive cars.

Parking Wars

Parking Wars is a reality television series that follows “the everyday people on the front lines of parking enforcement in Philadelphia and Detroit.”  While most of our parking violations won’t even be half as dramatic, I hope none of our readers has accepted a parking citation without putting up a fight.

The first thing you should always do when you receive a parking ticket is to DECLINE it.  Depending on where you live, the exact procedure might differ, but you usually have 30 days to contest either through an online database (as in Massachusetts) or by writing a letter (such as in Washington DC to the DMV’s Adjudication Services).    Regardless, the general idea is that you have the opportunity to explain any extenuating circumstances to the DMV and put forth any reasons you should be excused from having to pay a fine.  Below are some suggestions; remember to provide pictures, where appropriate, for visual effect:

  • The sign was obscured, so you thought you were parking in a legal spot.
  • You have parked in the exact spot on multiple other occasions and have never received a citation.
  • The officer miscalculated how close you parked to a fire hydrant or how far you parked from a curb.
  • The parking meter was broken.
  • You went an hour over the meter, because you were wearing a watch that haven’t been changed to account for Daylight Savings.
  • You had a medical emergency and it would have been unsafe and irresponsible for you to move the car and be out on the road.

Once you deny your ticket , it will take several weeks before you hear back from the DMV.  If they refuse to accept your bulls**t explanation, you still have to pay the ticket, but at least you have some time to start saving up.  On the other hand, they might lower your fine or dismiss your ticket entirely.  I have contested four parking citations so far and have gotten all four dismissed.  (Perhaps the bigger lesson here is to learn to park properly, but this is neither here nor there.)  Finally, if you are unable to pay the fine at once, you can contact the DMV again to work out a payment plan.  Just like you should always call your credit card companies, cell phone providers, and utilities services to try to waive any installation or late payment fees, it’s worth a shot to try and haggle with the DMV over a parking violation – it may save you some money, or you might end up not paying at all.