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.

Look Out for Credit Cards that Are “Yours” but Aren’t With You

Recently I got an automated email from Citibank letting me know that my credit card “statement is ready to view.” It was not spam and contained the email security zone, which states my name, the last 5 digits of my account, and since when I’ve had the card. The problem? I don’t have a card with those last 5 digits.

I called Citibank to check whether there was a glitch in their automated system, but the customer service representative (CSR) confirmed that there was in fact a card open in my name with those last 5 digits. Luckily, there were no charges to it, but apparently it had been open for a year now. I asked for him to securely close that account, and, since I already had him on the phone, asked to make sure that there were only 2 cards to my Citibank account – the two cards I actually own. He found those and two more. There were three cards to my name that I never actually had!

None of the three cards had any charges to them, but because I do not actually have any of them their very existence was enough to scare me. The CSR was able to securely close two of them but had to write out a manual close request for the third, so I will call in a couple of weeks to check up on that.

But this is what I’ve learned from this experience:

  • Read your credit card emails. Just because you get them every month doesn’t mean they are always the same. For some reason the card that triggered the notification had been open for a year but I never received any notification about it other than this one. Nonetheless, I opened and read through it because it came to a different email address than the one I use for my credit cards. Had it been sent to my other email, I might’ve never found out about it at all.
  • People worry about the impact that opening too many credit cards or closing a card might have on their credit score, but there’s something a lot worse: open credit cards that you don’t physically have. I am less worried about the ding on my score that the inquirer(s) may have caused by opening the card or the dent I may have made by closing all three cards at once than about the possibility that someone could’ve actually used the cards. I do not understand how the card application happened, and why someone would have a card on my name and not use it for a whole year, but I think I’m lucky. If any of the cards had been charged, my score and I would be in much bigger trouble.
  • Call your credit card company just to check what they have on file. You should definitely do that when you get a strange notification like I did, but I would recommend also calling every year or so just to make sure. Even though my “statement notification” email came from Citibank, I am calling Discover as well to verify that they really only have one card on file for me. You never know what you’ll find out – I only got the notification for one Citibank card, but once I had the representative on the line and asked him to check, he found 2 more.

I was lucky that nothing had been charged to any of the three cards I had never opened, and I hope that you are even luckier than I am and don’t have any fraudulent activity to your name at all. But with credit cards, better safe than sorry is the rule. Even if you think you’re lucky, it’s better to call and check than find out the hard way.

Go All In on a Trip through Asia this Fall

This deal is most useful for readers who have a lot of flexibility (read: vacation time) in their schedules and are looking to travel this Fall. But if you meet both of these criteria, Cathay Pacific’s All Asia Pass might match your travel plans quite well, as it allows travel throughout Asia in a span of 21 consecutive days with departure dates until November 29, 2011.

Since Cathay’s hub is in Hong Kong, all tickets include a stop there. For $1,880 (including taxes and fees), you can get an All Asia Pass with a stop in Hong Kong as well as two other Asian cities of your choice. The ticket allowing stops in three other Asian cities is $2,231, and for $2,582 you get to visit four Asian cities along with Hong Kong. For all three tickets, these prices are if you leave from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco, though you can pay extra to leave from other cities. Depending on where you’re flying out from, however, it may be cheaper to just buy a separate ticket to one of the four US departure cities listed above than pay for the add-on. These prices also require you that take the first leg of your flight, from the US to Hong Kong, on Monday through Wednesday during the promotion period; starting your trip on any other day of the week is $100 more.

Cathay Pacific All Asia Pass

Cathay Pacific's current ad for its All Asia Pass

There are 40 cities to which you can fly under any of the three All Asia Passes, all serviced either by Cathay or its sister airline Dragonair. These include some awesome destinations like Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Phuket, Singapore, and several cities in China, Japan, and Korea (for a full list check out Cathay’s brochure).

If you’d like to take advantage of the fact that you’re flying around the world and stop somewhere along the way, you can also include “add-on cities” in your itinerary. For an extra $300, you can add one of 9 cities to your itinerary, several of them in India, but also Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Kathmandu (Nepal), and Dhaka (Bangladesh). And if you want to go all-out and take this trip on a leisurely pace, you can pay an extra fee to extend the ticket for 30 or 90 consecutive days instead, although that may not be worthwhile since you’re effectively paying extra to stay put.

If you’ve got the vacation time and the flexibility, but just need a little more to sweeten the deal, here it is: all of your travel with any of the All Asia Passes accumulates miles just like a regular ticket! It will probably be painful to come back home after a 21-day-long relaxing trip through Asia, but the miles should ease the pain. Especially if the cities you choose in Asia are far from each other, all the city hoping you do with an All Asia Pass might actually already earn you a free ticket back to Asia. This means you can explore another part of Asia in the future, or just relive this Fall’s vacation some other time.

At Outlets, Mom and Dad Can Save You Money

Outlet shopping is a pretty obvious way to save money when compared to shopping at regular retailers. But there’s a way to save even more on outlet shopping: bring mom and dad along. No, I’m not suggesting that you should have them pay for your new outfits so you can keep your cash, although I’m sure some parents are more than happy to do so. Rather, there’s a discount that only they can give you: the Premium Outlets chain – which includes the outlet malls at Gilroy (CA), Woodbury (NY), and Wrentham (MA) – offers a 10% discount to shoppers over 50 years of age, every Tuesday.

I learned this about a year ago, when my mom was visiting me. We decided to take advantage of the fact that I was on vacation too and went outlet shopping on a weekday to avoid the crowds. The Premium Outlets chain is by far my favorite outlet option since they not only have good brands but the malls are also outdoors and the stores are for the most part clean and organized. They might not be the cheapest outlet malls out there, but the way they are set up makes for a much more pleasant experience since I don’t have to dig through heaps of stuff to find good deals.

So there we were: my mom and I on a shopping outing, on what happened to be a Tuesday. As my mom was checking out, I spotted a sign on the counter that said something like

50 Plus Shopper Perks

If you are at least 50 years of age you can take advantage of an added 10% savings on Tuesdays by simply presenting a photo identification with your proof of age to the cashier at participating stores. [taken from the Premium Outlets website]

I pointed it out, and told my mom to ask about it since we were there on a Tuesday anyway. The cashier interjected, “Don’t worry. I already applied the discount to your purchase.” If I were my mom, who happens to be in her “young 50s,” I would have been mortified or at the very least upset. But my mom took it in stride and was just happy with her discount. In fact, she then asked me if I didn’t want to buy more stuff that day, seeing as I could get the discount only with her anyway.

shopping

Photo credit: F-oxymoron (Creative Commons)

The list of participating stores for this discount varies by outlet mall, but is fairly long and includes J.Crew, Ralph Lauren, Vineyard Vines, and even Samsonite. To see the list for the Premium Outlet you are planning on visiting, just click on it on this map, then go to “sales & events”> “50 Plus Shopper Perks.”

My mom is visiting me again in a couple of weeks, and since she wants to go shopping, I will make sure to schedule the outlet trip for a Tuesday. It should be a good mother-and-daughter bonding experience – I’ll help her pick out clothes and carry her shopping bags, she’ll get me a 10% discount.

ev’reward: An Awesome Shortcut for Miles and Cashback Comparison Shopping

Late last week, I learned about a great website that I think is worth sharing: ev’reward.

I strongly believe in going through a portal whenever I online shop, so once I find something I want to buy, I put it in my check-out basket and then visit several portals to find out which one is giving the highest mileage or cashback return for that store. As I showed a while back, there isn’t one portal that is always the best – some portals have more partner stores than others, and the highest miles/ cashback yield varies by portal and store. And while I still visit several online portals, I admit that checking every one is a fairly time-consuming process if all you want to do is click “buy” and have an item delivered to your house.

Step in ev’reward. Through this website, you don’t have to decide whether visiting each portal is worth it for you – ev’reward automatically visits them and tells you what their deals are! All you have to do is type the name of the online store from which you’re buying something, and ev’reward gives you a list of portals and the miles or cashback each one will give you for making a purchase from that store. This cuts the research process to just a few seconds, and you can immediately see which portal will suit you best.

ev’reward’s output for Banana Republic: portals for cashback, savings, points, and miles

There are only two caveats that I’ve seen so far. First, some rates are a little outdated. For example, United’s Mileage Plus Shopping Portal is currently offering 2.5 miles per dollar spent at Banana Republic online, but ev’reward is showing only 2 miles per dollar. Second, it doesn’t list every portal out there, so that if you typed in “amazon.com,” you wouldn’t know through ev’reward that Hawaiian’s and US Airways’ shopping portals currently give miles for Amazon purchases.

Nonetheless, if you usually check several portals like I do before buying, ev’reward is a great starting point to find out which ones are even worth looking into. In the case of J.Crew, for example, ev’reward correctly does not list ShopDiscover as a cashback portal, so I know there’s no point in checking, which saves me some time. On the other hand, if you are not planning on investigating each portal before buying, with the ev’reward output, you can at least be sure that if you go through any portal on its list, you’ll get more miles or cashback than if you didn’t go through one at all.

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.