6 Hours in Stockholm

When we were planning our trip to Thailand, I was trying to decide if it was worth the time and money to go into central Stockholm during our 6 hour layover.  I decided at the last minute (literally the night before we left) that it was worth it.  No offense to the beautiful country of Sweden and it’s beautiful inhabitants, but I really have no immediate plans to visit…until my son wins the Nobel Prize.

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Our first picture in front of the Nobel Museum

Fast, But Expensive

The Arlanda Express can get you to the center of Stockholm in 20 minutes.  But it is one of the most expensive airport transports I have ever seen.  A regular price roundtrip ticket purchased at the airport will cost $74 per person!  You can buy reduced price tickets online that are valid on weekends only, but they are non-refundable.  This is why I waited until the very last minute.  I wanted to be sure we were actually going to do it.  I paid $87 for 2 roundtrip tickets. Children under 17 are always free.

How To Do It

We cleared immigration and customs very quickly and headed downstairs to catch the 8:20 train.  Directly across from the elevator doors that take you down to the train, there is an escalator that goes down to the “left luggage” area.  We rented a large locker to store our hand baggage and Scooby Doo Pillow Pet.  Fortunately the lockers accepted credit cards so we did not have to exchange money for Swedish Krona.  I think we paid around $6 for the locker rental.

We got down to the platform and waited less than 5 minutes for the next train to arrive.

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The trains are sleek, and very clean.

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Sick Parker

I wasn’t sure how far it was to walk from the train station to Gamla Stan (the Old Town). I had read online that it takes about 10-15 minutes, but I wasn’t sure how that 10-15 minutes would feel in the cold after having just flown for almost 9 hours.  But we were all ready for some fresh air so we walked outside the station to look around and try to get our bearings.

My son immediately saw a McDonald’s across the street.  As you may have read in my flight reviews, he was fighting a pretty nasty stomach bug and hadn’t eaten since we had left home.  I didn’t want to try to find something else for him to eat and I felt bad that he was sick, so I gave in.  I thought some “comfort food” would make him feel better.

It was just about 9am so they were still serving breakfast.  The choices were very different from the McDonald’s breakfast here in the US.  We found an egg and sausage biscuit that didn’t look too bad and he was begging for milk.  Milk isn’t the best thing to drink with an upset stomach. Especially European milk.  But I really wanted him to have something in him.  He took a couple bites of the egg and a few sips of the milk and then threw it up all over the table.  (here’s where the blog gets real)  I’m ashamed to say, I was furious.  We had just started the trip and he was already refusing to eat.  He has this bad habit of making himself throw up when he eats something he doesn’t like and honestly I thought that’s what he was doing.  We cleaned up and walked back outside.  I looked to  the left and saw the river and realized we weren’t that far from Gamla Stan.  It took about 10 minutes to walk across the bridge and be in the heart of the old town.  So – walk out of the train station, turn right and walk 10-15 minutes.  It’s very easy.

Once you get into the Old Town, there are several stands with free maps to help you find your way through all the alleys and back to the bridges.

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Crossing the bridge on our way to Gamla Stan

Looking back now, and knowing how sick Parker was, I feel absolutely terrible for making him walk around Stockholm, in the cold, for almost 2 hours.  I won’t win any Mother of the Year awards for that!

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He REALLY wanted that Viking hat. I should have bought it for him.

The Old Town dates back to the 13th century and there are many old, colorful buildings, alleyways and cobblestone streets.

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I loved the medieval alleys!

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On the right is the side of the Royal Palace and directly in front is the Stockholm Cathedral.

It was early, and a Sunday, so most of the shops and cafes were still closed.  A few tourist souvenir shops and a couple coffee shops were open, but not many.  We mainly just wandered the streets and looked at the beautiful buildings.  As sick as he was, Parker never once complained about walking and his Daddy was nice enough to carry him on his shoulders for awhile.

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Outside the Royal Palace

Just before 11am we started to head back to the train station to catch the 11:20am train.  We took one last walk through the square to admire the beautiful architecture.

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We got on the 11:20am train, made it back to the airport and retrieved our luggage from the locker and had plenty of time to spare before our 1:30pm flight to Bangkok.

I’m glad we got to see Stockholm but I’m not sure there is much more I would want to see.  If we had the time, I would have liked to go to the Vasa Museum and probably the ABBA museum.

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The Krumelmonster! Too bad we couldn’t stick around until that afternoon to see him!

Happy Travels!

Problems Loading Visa Gift Cards to Bluebird

Ouch! That burns!

This is the 2nd time in the past year I have been burned when buying a VISA gift card.  I say “burned”, but it wasn’t really that bad.

Let me explain.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I used to buy gift cards online at giftcardmall.com via ebates.  When ebates stopped giving cash back on VISA gift card purchases, I had to go back to buying them in stores.

My tried and true “go-to” gift card is the “Happy Birthday” Walmart VISA gift card.  I don’t know why I would ever stray from this card.  I have to go to Walmart to load to Bluebird anyway, so why not just buy the card there too?  I don’t know.  I despise Walmart and try to limit my time there.  Having to actually stand in line and interact with a cashier while buying a $500 gift card with a credit card makes me uncomfortable.  I’m not doing anything illegal, but it feels like it.  Especially at Walmart.

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I KNOW this one works!

About a year ago, Million Mile Secrets posted about using PIN enabled VISA gift cards purchased at Kroger to load to Bluebird.  You can read the post here.

Three times I have purchased VISA gift cards at Kroger, but only once have I been able to load the card to Bluebird.  Each time I have received a little receipt instructing me to call a number and set up a PIN and I have done so.  But when I try to load them to Bluebird I get the dreaded “payment not accepted” message and Ms. Bluebird blasting “transaction declined” across the customer service area of the store.

If you look at the pictures in MMS’ post about Visa gift cards, the top picture of the Visa gift card in gold packaging is the only one that has worked for me.  If you look down to the 2nd picture, you will see some Visa gift cards in silver packaging with gift boxes on them.  The one I tried that did not work had a purple gift box on it.  Also, if you look at the very bottom of that 2nd picture you will see a Visa gift card that is sort of a blueish-purple and says “Celebrate” on it.  That is the one I bought five days ago that also does not work.

All 3 cards had the same back cover as MMS posted a picture of.  All were issued through US Bank National Association and all listed mygiftcardsite.com as a customer service site.  For the life of me, I cannot figure out why one card worked and two did not.

Why Am I Telling You This?

Many people do not like bloggers posting about Manufactured Spending (MS), and Bluebird and gift cards.  Whatever.  I’m not giving away state secrets here.  Most of what I do is very minor league compared to some people’s MS activities! So, I am posting this as a sort of warning to be careful of what gift cards you buy.  Start with a small denomination to make sure it works for you.  Once you find a gift card that works, just stick with it.  There is no need to try other ones.  (unless you find one with a smaller fee)

My “Happy Birthday” Walmart gift card has a fee of $4.94.  Those Kroger gift cards were $5.95.  So basically I wasted $6 on that $500 gift card that didn’t work.  Well….$12 on the two of them, but who’s counting? I was able to liquidate them in another way, so it’s not like I was out $500 ($1000), but it was still an inconvenience.

I still need to buy one more $500 gift card this month to top off my Bluebird account to pay my mortgage for June and a life insurance premium that is also due in June.  I guess a trip to Walmart is on my agenda for next week!

Happy Travels!

Run, Don’t Walk, To Sign Up for the US Airways Mastercard!

One of the Best Cards

On my page, Top 5 Credit Cards for Beginners, I listed the Barclay’s US Airways Mastercard as one of the best cards for beginners (or anybody) to get.

Application Link: US Airways Mastercard

You will earn 40,000 miles after your first purchase.  That’s it.  One and done.  Of course, Barclay’s would appreciate it if you would use their card often.  And you really should put one or two purchases on each of your cards every month, just to keep the banks happy.

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As you can see, in addition to the 40,000 miles, you will also get two companion certificates allowing 2 people to travel with you for only $99 each plus tax.  You also get Priority Boarding, a free checked bag and a US Airways Club day pass.  The $89 annual fee is not waived for the first year.  But $89 for 40,000 miles that can get you to the Caribbean or Hawaii – that’s a no-brainer.  You can also travel from the US to Europe in their off-peak season (Jan 15-Feb 28) for only 35,000 miles.  I have traveled to Europe in the winter many times and yes it’s chilly, but the sites are still there and the crowds are not.  It’s actually quite nice.

US Airways Award Travel Chart

All Good Things Must Come To An End

Unfortunately.  Yesterday I received a card in the mail from US Airways announcing changes to the program and the credit card after the merger with American Airlines.  These changes will most likely come in early 2015.

  • No more companion certificate.  Final companion certificates will be issued soon for current cardholders and they must be booked within 9 months and travel within 12 months.  If you apply for a card today, you will get your companion certificate after your first purchase.
  • Miles earned through credit card spend will no longer count towards Preferred Status.  When you spend $25,000 or more, they will convert 10,000 miles into Preferred Qualifying Miles toward 2015 status.  You must complete this spending by the end of 2014, as this will no longer be offered after the merge.
  • US Airways Club day pass and Membership Discount.  You will receive a Club day pass valid for 12 months to visit a US Airways Club.  But you will not receive a $75 discount coupon towards Club Membership.
  • First Class check in. Continue to enjoy First Class check-in until the end of 2014.

It’s Not All Bad News

There are some positive changes coming to the US Airways award program that are aligned with American’s AAdvantage Program.  These new benefits will be implemented in 2015.

  • 10% of your miles back.  This is a feature of American’s program that I really like.  When you redeem miles for award travel, you’ll receive 10% of your miles back into your account.  Currently US Airways offers a 5,000 mile discount on award bookings if you hold the credit card,  (i.e. 20,000 miles for a domestic ticket rather than 25,000) but only if you fly completely on US Airways metal.  I have never been able to do that.  Seems like American operated flights come up more often than not.
  • 25% off in-flight purchases.  Save 25% on your in-flight food and beverage purchases when you use your card.
  • $100 flight discount.  As a cardmember, you can earn a $100 flight discount each year in which you spend $30,000 or more in purchases and you maintain your card membership.  Not a great deal, in my opinion.
  • Additional redemption flexibility.  Enhance your award travel experience with redemption for one-way travel and First Class upgrades.

No mention of those off peak awards that both carriers currently offer.  I have used the American AAdvantage off peak awards several times to travel to the Caribbean in the fall.

Do It Now

I can’t stress enough how great of a deal this US Airways card is.   Just do it.

Happy Travels!

What Is It Like To Fly Coach Class To Asia?

Coach Class to Asia

I started planning our trip to Thailand in February 2013.  At that time I had enough miles for 3 coach tickets.  I knew coach would be rough, but I wanted to know just how rough.  I searched and I Googled, looking for a blog post that documented just how bad it was to fly coach, long distances,  on different carriers.  I found none.  But I found TONS of  posts reviewing the different business class offerings on different airlines.  Yes, we love to drink champagne and eat ice cream sundaes before we Lie Flat in our comfy “bed” with fluffy pillows and duvets.  Yes, we get it.  It’s nice.

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Yes yes, very nice

In order to get 3 business seats (assuming I could even find 3 on the same flight) I would have to earn another 120,000 miles.  I didn’t have time for that! The time to go to Thailand was now! My son was the perfect age and it was pretty easy to pull him out of Kindergarten for 2 weeks.  When he’s older, that may not be as easy.

When I started my blog, I said it was going to be different.  This was going to be “real life”.  A “real” family traveling in coach for 20 hours because we want to take 2 trips rather than one.  Well….by the end of this article, I may just change my mind!

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Who wants to sit like this for 10+ hours? Not me! But I did.

We literally traveled around the world, in coach, and lived to tell about it.  We had a total of 9 flights on our trip to Thailand.  All of them in coach.  Some were ok, some were bad and some were down right ugly!

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Our routing sent us, literally, around the world!

The Flights

United

We started on a United Regional Jet (RJ) from Cincinnati to Chicago.  You know those kind of flights are going to be bad, and there is no first class anyway, so you just have to deal with it.

Scandinavian Airlines

Our flight from Chicago to Stockholm was on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), a founding member of the Star Alliance Network. We were on an Airbus 330 with the horrible 2-4-2 configuration.  No hope for a family of 3!  I booked 3 seats in a 4 seat row, leaving one of the middle ones empty in hopes of nobody wanting to book a middle seat in a 4 seat section.  No luck.  The flight was full.

The meal service was not bad.  P’s kid’s meal was chicken fingers, tater tots and cheesecake.  Hubby and I had pot roast, carrots and mashed potatoes.  It really was a decent coach meal.  The service was not so good though.  It took them almost an hour to come around and collect the dirty meal trays.  This just made everyone more uncomfortable having a tray in your lap covered with dirty dishes.

P was starting to come down with some sort of virus that he brought along with him from school.  When we landed in Stockholm, he promptly vomited on the seat.  Of course I freaked out and tried to clean it up with tissues. (that doesn’t work)  I wanted to push past people and run off of that plane as fast as I could.  But having worked for the airlines, I knew we had to tell somebody so it could be safely cleaned up.  Hubby told the nearest flight attendant, who rolled and closed her eyes and shook her head.  Nice.  No “Ohhh I’m so sorry your baby is sick”, just irritation that it was something she would have to deal with.  And by “deal with” I mean “tell someone else to clean up”.

One other thing to be aware of – except for water and coffee, SAS charges for drinks outside of meal service.

Thai Airways

I was so happy to be greeted by the beautiful Thai flight attendants in the traditional silk Thai uniforms! The interior of the Thai 777 was larger, brighter and more modern than the SAS Airbus.  It actually inspired me to take pictures!

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Settling in for the 10.5 hour flight!

This flight was probably the most pleasant of all the flights we took on this trip.  The flight attendants were friendly and attentive, the meals were good, the in-flight entertainment was good and there was even a footrest!

P’s kid’s meal was Swedish Meatballs (we departed from Stockholm) with mashed potatoes and carrots.  He was too sick to eat, so I can attest to the tastiness of the meal!

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Sorry it’s blurry!

Hubby had Hoki fish (aka McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish) with potatoes and broccoli and I had Chicken panang with rice and green beans.

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Thai Airways meals are delicious!

And no Thai meal is complete without Thai Coke!

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Ahhhhhhhh!

I had planned to sleep on this flight, but unfortunately I couldn’t.  I just can’t sleep sitting up.  I  bought one of those SkyRest pillows, thinking that I could sleep leaning forward.  But I am either too tall or too short for the SkyRest pillow, I can’t figure out which.  Either way, it was not comfortable.

I passed the time watching 12 Years a Slave, Philomena and our approach to Bangkok.

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Notice the handy USB plug!

Shortly before we landed we were served breakfast.  P’s breakfast was crepes with little hot dog looking sausages.

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These types of sausages were common in Thailand. We never quite got used to them.

Air Asia

We used Air Asia twice: from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and a few days later from Bangkok to Phuket.

The flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was beyond unpleasant. No fault of Air Asia, just us.  It was a late evening flight, around 8pm, and we were still horribly jet-lagged and P was still sick.  P was seriously a zombie.  I felt terrible that I literally had to drag him through the airport.

The flight from Bangkok to Phuket was much better.  It was a morning flight. we were over our jet lag and illnesses, and we were greeted with the most beautiful view when we landed.

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The Air Asia plane that took us from Bangkok to Phuket

The Phuket airport was rather small and easy to navigate.  We easily exchanged money after getting through customs and went outside to find our taxi.  Now…where is our taxi?

I booked a transfer from Phuket airport to the JW Marriott in Khao Lak with “Boss Cheaper Than Hotel Taxi” (yes that is the name) several weeks in advance.  Our flight landed at 9:30 am and I told him to be there at 10.  We were outside a couple minutes before 10 and he was not there.  We walked up and down for about 15 minutes looking for him, but he never showed.  I had not prepaid him, so if he didn’t show, I would not have lost any money BUT the rate he quoted me was 600 Baht (around $19) cheaper than the vans at the airport.

After a few minutes of pacing, the airport van drivers decided they needed to pounce on the stranded tourist.  I had about 4 of them following me up and down the sidewalk saying “Taxi Miss? You need a taxi?”  I kept telling them I was waiting for Boss, as I thought he was quite well known.  They acted like they had never heard of him.  I had no cell phone service and there was no wifi at the airport so I was unable to look online for his phone number.  I finally asked one of the van drivers to let me borrow his phone, but I couldn’t seem to connect to him.

I was just about to give up and pay the extra $19 when my Hubby shouted “He’s here!”  Only about 45 minutes late, but Thai time is almost like Island time in the Caribbean. He was late and I was stressed, but I would still recommend him if you need transport from Phuket to Khao Lak.

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Boss operates new and clean SUVs! And his price really is cheaper than the hotels!

Asiana Airlines

Our flight from Phuket to Seoul departed at 1:30am.  I can tell you at least one person who wasn’t very happy about that departure time!

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I wish I could do that!

The flight to Seoul was about 6 hours long.  I have virtually no memory of it, and I took no notes so I’m guessing I was able to sleep for most of the flight.

P was wide awake when we arrived in Seoul and fortunately they had a play area for him to run off some energy before getting on our longest flight of the trip.

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P is a blur at the Incheon airport play area.

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Our 12.5 hour flight from Seoul to Chicago was on an Asiana 747.  I think this was the flight where I decided I might have to change the theme of my blog.  It wasn’t horrible, but … yeah it was horrible.  No fault of Asiana, but 12.5 hours in those tiny seats is almost cruel.

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Asiana kids meal

 

One positive thing I can say about Asiana is they sure feed you a lot.  Our meals were quite tasty and they were very generous with snacks and drinks between meal service.  At one point about mid-flight they came through with chicken burritos.  Those were SO good….even P ate one.  We asked if they had any extras and they brought us 2 more!

We survived the 12.5 hour flight to Chicago and retreated to the comfort of the Admiral’s Club (which has showers!) for our 4 hour layover.

Bottom Line

I am really going to have to reconsider my stance on “real family” travel.  If I have the means to book 3 business class seats, I should do it.  Although it can be hard to find 3 business class award seats on the same flight, it’s not impossible.  I also have to consider the value of the business class ticket.  Is it worth blowing the miles?  Maybe book business class only on flights longer than 8 hours?  Maybe.  There is something to be said about being on an 8 hour flight to Europe and arriving refreshed after getting about 6 hours of sleep rather than arriving like a zombie after a 45 minute, neck crushing nap.

In my opinion, it’s best to save your miles for the long international trips in business class.  Personally, I will spend money to buy domestic tickets because they are usually pretty cheap if you know how to find the deals and use your credit card companion passes wisely. Plus you are earning miles for taking the flights!

I recently earned 220,000 miles with the Citi AAdvantage Executive Card, in addition to about 75,000 miles we already had.  PLUS about 70,000 US Airways miles that will soon merge with those AAdvantage miles.  We are thinking about Australia in 2 years and I think that might be the perfect opportunity to use those miles for Business class.  Let’s not forget I still have 300,000 Delta SkyPesos, but their redemption rates are so high I don’t think I could swing an Australia trip using them.  I would LOVE to fly on Virgin Australia though! So I think I will use my SkyPesos for a couple coach trips to Europe…assuming I can find availability.

I’ve flown business and first class many times, both domestic and international.  Is it worth it? Yes.  It is.

 

I hope this post has helped somebody who was searching for the truth on what it’s like to fly coach class to Asia.  The Asian carriers are definitely far superior to any US carrier, but coach is still coach.  In the end, you have to decide what your miles are worth to YOU and what works best for your family.

Happy Travels!

My First Money Order!

I have said it many times, “I am a reluctant participant in the Manufactured Spending game”.  I am.  It’s true.  Something about it feels…dirty.  Unethical maybe? I do it, but I don’t feel comfortable doing large amounts of it.

And sometimes I feel sorry for the poor airlines who are giving away all these miles and free travel to people who have never paid them a dime for an actual flight.   The poor airlines who are nickel-and-diming us To Death with fees for checked baggage, hand baggage, flight changes, drinks and meals.

And I feel sorry for the poor banks who are giving all those miles and points away to people using their cards to just circle money around a loop. The poor banks who are making millions off of people carrying balances on cards at 19% interest and fees paid by merchants to accept their cards. Continue reading

Is The Party Over for Buying VISA Gift Cards Online?

 

Since last fall, I have been purchasing VISA gift cards from giftcardmall.com going through ebates.com.  Ebates gives 1% cash back on purchases of gift cards.  The fine print says (and it was pointed out to me many many times by others) that “cash back is not available on VISA gift card purchases”.  HOWEVER, I was getting cash back on VISA gift card purchases between Oct 2013 and January 2014.  Here is my ebates statement showing the $45 cash back I earned.

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Laura’s May 2014 App-O-Rama

App-O-Rama Results: 170,000 points

If I haven’t mentioned this before, I am a very conservative App-O-Rama’er.  (is that a new word?) If you are unfamiliar with what an App-O-Rama is, see this post.

Most people do five or six cards at one time, I usually do three or maybe four depending on how good the offers are.  At this time, we seem to be in sort of a drought of good offers so I only applied for three. Continue reading

How I spent $20,000 in 3 months…Without Going Broke!

I did it all for 200,000 American Airlines Miles!

Earlier this year, Citibank began offering their Citi Executive / AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard with a sign up bonus of 100,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles! That was too good to pass up.  There were a couple obstacles that made me pause though.  The spend requirement: $10,000 in 3 months.  And the annual fee: $450 not waived for the first year.  Although they do give you a $200 statement credit, so you can actually say the annual fee is only $250.  Still very high, but if you were to purchase miles from the American Airlines website, it would cost you $2,200 for 80,000 miles (the highest amount they sell) and $250 would only get you about 9,000 miles. Continue reading

Earn Points for Mother’s Day Gifts

Gifts for Mom! Or yourself!

Mother’s Day is fast approaching and many online shopping portals are giving bonuses on their usual miles and points offerings.

United Mileage Plus Shopping is offering 3x the miles on Mother’s Day gifts!

Shopping at Sephora through the Mileage Plus shopping portal will earn you 9 points per dollar spent through May 4, 2014.  Which means you can earn 450 miles for a $50 purchase.  Also, if you enter URBANEYE at checkout, you can score a Free Urban Decay Eye Primer and 7 Eyeshadow Samples with any order over $25! But keep in mind that you have to spend $50 to get free shipping.

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Do something special for Mom this year!

 

You can also earn 30 miles per $1 spent at FTD through the Mileage Plus Shopping portal. A $40 flower arrangement will earn you 1,200 miles!

 

 

Continue reading