If They Blog About It, It Will Die

How many times has this been true?

I seriously miss the days when travel hacking, credit card churning, manufactured spending was all underground.  There were a few message board sites where people would talk about it using aliases and lots of code words.  Not anymore! Now we scream it from the rooftops in Big Guy Blogs and Frequent Traveler University gatherings.  We tell you how to game the system and rake in millions of miles by doing things the banks probably don’t like.

For years I never talked about it.  I didn’t even tell my family and friends what I was doing.  (mainly because I didn’t want to get lectured about ruining my credit score.  Yeah whatever, Mom) I just always said “I never pay for travel”, with a smile.  I still say that.

Well…I don’t do that.  I won’t.  Which is part of the reason I do not regularly write in this blog.  I will still post about my trips (promise) and give you some tips on travel but I’m not going to be one of those blogs who posts about every Chase sign-up bonus and every airline mileage program devaluation.  (though I reserve the right to complain about such devaluations)

So here is a little known money saving/mileage earning deal going on this month.  Thornton’s gas stations (located only in the midwest with a few scattered in FL)  are offering 20% off third party gift cards to places like amazon.com, iTunes, restaurants, stores etc.  It is not well advertised, but I found out about it through a Big Guy Blog.  I wasn’t even going to blog about it because I wanted to keep it a SECRET! Especially in my area – more for me!

Thornton-20-Gift-CardsIf you have a credit card that earns a category bonus for gas station purchases, you are not only saving money, but earning bonus points.

There are 3 Thornton’s in my general area.  The first one I went to was just about completely wiped out of gift cards and the guy behind the counter told me that he did have amazon gift cards, but someone bought 20 of them the day before and now they are gone.  I bought one $25 Buffalo Wild Wings gift card for $20 and paid with a credit card.

I went to the 2nd Thornton’s and all they had was Bass Pro Shops and iTunes. I’m kicking myself now for not buying the iTunes.

I did not make it to the 3rd Thornton’s until yesterday.  Still no amazon or store cards, but I did select a Darden restaurant card and an iTunes card.  When I got to the register the girl said “I don’t think you can pay for those with a credit card”. I told her I bought some at the Erlanger location with a credit card just a couple days ago.  She tried and the payment was not accepted.  I gave her my bank debit card, but that did not work either.  Another girl came up and said they had “problems” with accepting credit cards for gift card purchases and so it is now their policy not to.

Of course I never have cash, so I had to return the gift cards, put my tail between my legs and leave.  Brought back memories of trying to buy Vanilla Reloads with a credit card at CVS.  Thornton’s did have a big selection of Vanilla Reloads, by the way.  They sat there – taunting me.

So.  The Big Guys post about Thornton’s gift card discount.  People run out in droves to buy them all up.  There are none left and Thornton’s wised up to the credit card game.  (or somebody was buying massive amounts of them with a stolen CC)

If you are interested in saving money, this could still be a good deal for you using cash.  In fact, it IS a good deal for you.  You are still saving $5. I would not go out of my way to do this, but if you have a Thornton’s in your area and they actually have some gift cards left – go for it!

It is still possible, in a roundabout way to pay for them with a credit card.  You load your Bluebird or Serve with a credit card (or gift cards purchased with credit cards) and you can withdraw $100 cash from a Money Pass ATM with no fee and then buy $100 worth of gift cards for $80.  Is it worth your time to run around all those places doing that? I doubt it, but if it’s convenient for you, it’s a good deal.

Bottom line, it’s still a money saver if you pay cash.  Christmas is coming, ya know.

I have slowed down considerably on my Manufactured Spending.  Right now I am only doing enough loads on Serve to cover my mortgage payment each month.  I can load Serve with my credit card from the comfort and warmth of my office chair (shhhhh! don’t tell anybody!). I don’t mind that at all.  It’s free and I don’t have to run to Walmart all the time.

In 2014 I spent $149.49 on gift card fees.  I got into the cash back on American Express gift cards late, so I only earned back $90.50.  That means I spent $58.99 to Manufacture enough Spend to get 795,000 miles and points in 2014.  Was it worth it?  Was it worth it  to spend $59 to get 795,000 miles and points?? Yeah…I think so.  Well…to be fair I should probably account for annual fees I had to pay that were not waived for the first year.  And it gets a little ugly there.  (damn you 3 Citi Executive cards! ) $975.  But still.  Just over $1,000 for 795,000 miles and points?  Sure.  But I am done for a while. I have decided it is just not worth the hassle.

Likely by the end of the year I will apply for a couple cards if they offer good “end of the year” sign up bonuses.  Chase Southwest is a big contender.  They are currently offering 50,000 points per card and they have 4.  Even though I am a bit gun-shy with Business cards, I might give it a go.  I’m also hoping British Airways offers a 100,000 mile sign up bonus at the end of the year as they have done for the past couple years.  I am keen to use Avios for a trip to Ireland.

So that’s all for now.

 

 

New York City 2014

This was a Gatekeeper Paranormal team trip, rather than a “family trip”, but I wanted to share with you some of the fun things we did and ways I saved money!

For the past year we have wanted to experience Blackout , an intense, adults only theatrical “haunted house”.  When they announced the dates for Fall 2014 in New York City, we decided to go for it.

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Airfare from Cincinnati to New York can average anywhere from $350 to $550.  Most of those flights will involve a connection, likely in Charlotte or Chicago.  Delta has a nonstop flight from Cincinnati to LaGuardia, but the fares were around $450.  We didn’t decide to go until about 4 weeks before the event, so the likelihood of finding a low level award ticket was pretty low.

Two of my Gatekeeper team members work for airlines so I decided to use a buddy pass.  Flights from CVG to LGA are pretty easy to get on as a non rev and they looked good for our dates, so I took a chance.  I used to work for airlines myself and non rev travel was always a gamble, but it seems to be much worse now.  But in the end, this worked out great for me.  I paid about $115 for a roundtrip ticket and even got first class on the way home.

Finding a hotel was probably the most difficult part of the planning process.  We were 4 girls who wanted to share one room.  Not easy to do in Manhattan, especially on a budget!  Most of the rooms I could get in Manhattan with points only had one bed.  We wanted this trip to be as cheap as possible since it was relatively last minute, so I expanded my search outside of Manhattan.

A couple years ago I won 22,000 Hyatt points from a contest on Million Mile Secrets.  They have just been sitting there because I have never applied for a Hyatt credit card and honestly have never stayed in a Hyatt before!

I found the Hyatt Place Flushing/LaGuardia available for our 2 nights at 12,000 Hyatt points per night.  I transferred 2,000 points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account (which was super fast and easy to do) and used the 24,000 points for 2 nights.  I reserved a room with 2 queen beds and a sofa bed.

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The hotel is brand new and within a 7 minute walk to the subway station.  The #7 train will take you directly to Times Square in about 30 minutes.  Again, not as convenient as staying right in Times Square, but sometimes to save money, you do what you have to do.

The hotel is in downtown Flushing, which is the largest urban center in Queens and the 2nd largest Chinatown in New York City.  The hotel caters to a mostly Chinese clientele and is also mostly staffed by Chinese.  The staff though, could not have been friendlier.  I was very pleased with the service we received.  Two of us arrived early (9:30am) and the girl at the front desk was very accommodating in getting us a room so we could relax and wait for our friends to arrive before heading into the city.

On our first day, we took the subway all the way down to Canal Street because one of my friends is a bit obsessed with knock-off handbags.  The knock-off trade isn’t like it used to be back in the day.  Back in the 90s, they had bags displayed on the street and then would hustle you into back rooms to look at the “really good stuff”.  But the police have cracked down on this and now it’s all secret back room dealings.  Ladies on the street will ask you if you want bags and then take you a couple blocks away to meet a guy who gives you a laminated cardboard sheet full of pictures of bags.  Most of them are in the $125 to $140 price range and the guys are not very interesting in haggling.  We walked away empty-handed and it was almost a wasted trip except for getting our $1 dirty water dog.

dog

We came back uptown a bit and walked around Macy’s – who already had their Christmas windows set up and decorations out.  On November 6.

Our 4th friend, Mandy, finally arrived around 6pm and we went to visit her friends who live in the Hell’s Kitchen area.  We had dinner plans to meet my friends at Dos Caminos on Park Avenue at 8pm.  Riding the subway was becoming a bit of a chore so we decided to check out Uber.

Uber is a ride-sharing service that operates like a taxi service – but much cooler.  They were (and maybe still are) offering a promotion where your first ride is free (up to $30).  After your ride, you are given a promo code that you can give to a friend for them to get a free ride.  Once they use their free ride, you get another.  There were 4 of us on this trip…you see where this is going?  No more subway!

Uber uses a cool smartphone app that lets you request a car, get an estimate of the fare and even track your driver’s location on GPS, and the fare and tip is automatically charged to your credit card on file or your PayPal account.

We requested a car to pick us up on 51st Street and take us to Dos Caminos on Park Avenue.  That is a distance of just about 2 miles.  The total Uber fare was $10.83, but cost me nothing because of the promo.  Looking back this was not the best use of my promo code because I could have gotten a $30 value ride.  But…it was still free, so I was happy.

Dos Caminos has some of the best guacamole I have ever tasted.  There was a bit of sticker shock to those of us used to paying midwest restaurant prices.  But it was a lot of fun to eat at a hip NYC restaurant instead of hot dogs on the street, and to visit with my friends.  Incidentally this was the largest expense of my trip, coming in at $65 for just me.  And no…I do not eat a lot.  But I did have two $15 Cadillac margaritas.

cadillac

$15 in a glass

After dinner, we met back up with Mandy’s friends at The Player’s Club.  The Player’s Club is a private, members only club for people of the theatre.  It is located in a townhouse that was built in 1847.

players

photo credit: Mandy Loftis

 

We were given a tour of the entire building, including Edwin Booth’s private room that contains a human skull.  A fascinating experience.

We took a Yellow cab from The Player’s Club back to Flushing and the fare was about $45.  Wow.  Not bad when you split it between 4 people, but still quite a hefty fee.

On Friday we took the subway back into Manhattan and visited One World Trade Center. I have been to the site several times since the Sept 11 attacks, and it looks different every time.  I was there in December 2001 when there were still massive piles of rubble.  I was also there 3 years ago when they were just starting to build the museum.   It looks like the plan now is to complete a huge retail space in the next year.

wtc

photo credit: Angela Johnson

We took a (free) (freezing) ride on the Staten Island ferry so my friends could see the Statue of Liberty.  I have seen Lady Liberty several times, so I stayed inside and tried to stay warm!

tourists

Notice I am missing from this picture

The rest of our afternoon, before hitting Blackout, was spent shopping and eating.  We had pizza at Joe’s Pizza (my fave) and got some crazy delicious mini cupcakes at Baked By Melissa.  (the Cookie Dough ones are To Die For)

We then headed over to Central Park which was still awash in fall colors and absolutely gorgeous.

park

photo credit: Mandy Loftis

We grabbed another Dirty Water Dog here.  Remember the one on Canal Street that cost $1?  The same dog up here is $4.  Location location location.  Eat your dogs downtown!

We took another Free Uber ride down to Houston Street for Blackout.  If you are interested in my review of Blackout you can send me an e-mail.  This is a family travel blog and there really is nothing family-friendly I can say about Blackout.  It is a crazy, intense experience and definitely for adults only.

blackout

Gatekeeper Paranormal survives Blackout:House 2014

After Blackout we walked down the street to Katz Deli to warm up and eat some comfort food.

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We took our last free Uber ride back to our hotel in Queens.  Remember the yellow cab ride back to the hotel that cost $45?  The Uber ride was free…but came to $20 with tip.  Not a bad deal!

All together, my weekend trip to NYC set me back about $320.  Not bad!  Here is a breakdown

  • Airfare – $115
  • Two $10 Metro cards – $20
  • Cupcakes – $21 (yes…and I ate them all)
  • Chocolate Babka – $12
  • CVG airport parking – $20
  • Dos Caminos – $65
  • Blackout – $40
  • Cash spent on dogs, pizza, pop and souvenirs for Parker – $30

Up next – my trip report on Beaches Turks and Caicos and hopefully the rest of my Thailand trip reports.

I have taken a break on Manufactured Spending for the moment.  The $30,000 spend required for the Executive card kinda burned me out for awhile.  Too many trips to Walmart.  I will probably get back into it next month.

Happy Travels!