Thursday, May 12, 2016

Steaks on a Train!- An Amtrak Crescent Trip Review

I recently had the opportunity to ride the Amtrak Crescent from Birmingham, Alabama up to Washington, DC with a great group of guys for a trip to Gettysburg.  My dad and I traveled in a sleeper car and had a great time, even if Amtrak travel isn't exactly the height of luxury.

The trip started out at the post-apocalyptic Birmingham train station.

This is a grim place, and not one you want to hang around in long.  Though I understand that Birmingham is currently building a new multi-million-dollar-federally-funded intermodal transport hub that will house Amtrak also (to replace the old multi-million-dollar-federally-funded intermodal transport hub built in 1998).

Things improved marginally when we climbed aboard our car, and met Claude, our charming steward.  Our bedroom, configured in day mode, was comfortable, if a bit tight.

Amtrak Bedrooms feature a "full" bath that's much like something you might find in a 1980s-era RV.

And they feature some really distinctive toiletries!
Just like being on the beach at Waikiki

Though it was 2 o'clock, we learned that lunch was still being served, so we moseyed down to the dining car to check out the bill of fare:

I went with a bacon cheeseburger.  It definitely wasn't the worst I've ever had, and service was very friendly:

Some of the other guys in our group had adjoining cabins, so we opened up the door between them and enjoyed a bourbon or two while talking and watching rural Alabama and Georgia roll by our windows.  After a stop in Atlanta, it was time to return to the diner car for dinner.  The obvious choice was the Amtrak "Signature" steak.

Well, it was the obvious choice, but maybe not the best choice.  The vegetables were truly terrible, and the steak was just fair.  That said, the house red wine (the only red wine) was decent:

Dessert, though, was pretty good:

While at dinner, Claude converted our bedroom to night mode:

It is nearly impossible to move about the cabin when the beds are down, and you need to be pretty spry to make it into the top bunk (where I slept... you're welcome, Dad.)  The beds themselves, though, were surprisingly comfortable, if you like a firm bed.

The next morning, it was back to the dining car for breakfast, where I had the "continental."  It was more of a Jordan Peele "continental" than a Intercontinental Le Grand "continental," but it got the job done:

Then it was off the train at Union Station and off for the rest of our trip!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Booking the Old Fashioned Way- The Howtown Hotel, Cumbria

Mr. Pointsninja and I have a visit to England upcoming.  We'll be staying in the Lake District for a couple of days where chain hotels are thin on the ground.  I kind of like going places like that because it forces me out of my rut and makes me do some research to find the right place.  I ended up picking the Howtown Hotel, the furthest thing from a chain that I could find.  As you can see, it has a website, but that's about where its connection with the modern world ends.  You can't book online.  You can't even pay with a credit card. But what you can do is call to get a spot in "the book."  Then you write them a letter (kids, that's the paper thing that goes in a envelope) setting out your reservation request.  What you'll get back is this:

A lovely note from Mrs. Baldry, the Howtown Hotel's proprietress, confirming your reservation.  Beats an e-mail any day!  I'm really looking forward to this review.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What's In My Wallet

I recently read a couple of "what's in my wallet" posts by two of the bloggers on my sidebar, Gary @ View from the Wing and Lucky at One Mile at at Time.  Both posts discuss the credit cards, etc. that they carry around every day.  Because Gary and Lucky both recommend cards and earn money from referral links (and I don't), I thought it might be interesting to look at what I carry around on a daily basis and to explain why.  So, here it is:

Citi Thank You Premier:  This is my first year with the card, so I haven't paid any annual fee on this card.  I completed the required spending for a 50K sign-up bonus, but I'm still carrying the card to use for restaurant spending, where it earns two Thank You points per dollar.  Transferable points are the gold standard in the points and miles world and I'm always looking for ways to diversify my points portfolio.  Thank You Points are what I consider a "second-tier" transferable currency since they only transfer to a limited number of airlines. I should note that this card also earns 3 points per dollar on gas, but I use a different card (that earns "first-tier" transferable points) for that.

Hilton HHonors Surpass:  I've had this card for a number of years, primarily because it has a pretty good earning structure and awards Hilton Diamond status with $40,000 in annual spending.  I use it for all of my grocery store spending, where it earns 6 points per dollar.  Because I'm able to do some manufactured spending at grocery stores, I can pretty easily hit that $40K mark each year.  Depending on my Hilton balance, I may pull this card out of my wallet when I hit it this year.  If I do, I'll likely start using the next card for grocery store spend.

Fidelity Investment Rewards Amex:  This card is my touchstone for all other cards.  No annual fee and a flat 2% cashback everywhere, all the time.  By "touchstone", I mean it sets the valuation benchmark for determining whether to use another card for bonus categories.  For instance, the Surpass card earns 6PPD at grocery stores.  By using the Surpass instead of the Fidelity card, I'm paying an opportunity cost of 2 cents for 6 Hilton Points.  Because I value Hilton points at around .4 CPP, I get 2.4 cents worth of value for every dollar spent, making the Surpass a slightly better choice at the grocery store.

Barclay Arrival+ Mastercard: This is an $89 annual fee card.  I use this card to do some grocery store MSing.  It earns an effective rate of 2.05% cashback towards travel everywhere. As a Mastercard, I've been able to link it to my Fuel Rewards card and I earn an additional 3 cents in Fuel Reward per $100 spent at Winn-Dixie.  I also use this card for car rentals because it is a World Elite Mastercard and carries primary rental car coverage (which means I can waive the CDW without sweating).  I may or may not keep this card when my next annual fee comes due, as I plan on depleting my award balance to pay for much of an upcoming trip to England.

Suntrust Delta Debit Card: This is a legacy card that I probably won't renew when the $75 annual fee comes due in June.  Suntrust was an incredible source of Skymiles for years when this card earned 1MPD on debit purchases.  That meant that I could use MS techniques to effectively purchase Skymiles at .07 CPM, an incredible bargain. But, as with all incredible bargains, it couldn't last.  The card is now throttled to 2,000 miles in a month at a .5MPD rate.  I carry it solely for MSing purposes.

American Express Business Gold:  This is another annual fee card, I picked it up for the huge sign-up bonus, but I haven't paid a fee on it yet.  At $175, the fee probably exceeds the card's value and if I'm not offered any sort of retention bonus, I may not keep it.  But for now, I use it for gas purchases where it earns 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar.  Membership Reward points are very flexible and transfer to a number of useful airlines, including Delta.

Winn-Dixie Customer Rewards Card: Okay, so this is not a credit card, but I needed something to cover up the personal info on my bottom card!  Still, it is important in my current MS cycle.  For a couple of years, I've earned Fuel Rewards points by swiping this card whenever I was doing any MSing at WD.  Points were only earned on the load fees for purchasing Visa gift cards, but every little bit helped.

I have other cards (ED: Lots!), but most of them I hold for specific purposes and not everyday spending.  I'll cover those in a separate post.

PS: Oh, and Lucky's credit score is higher than mine... but not by much!

Friday, April 1, 2016


One of my favorite deals ever was the United State's Mint's "Direct Ship" program.  It allowed you to purchase presidential dollar coins at face value with a miles earning credit card - and the Mint would even ship them to you for free! There was no effective limit to the amount of coins that you could purchase, and many people purchased hundreds of thousands of coins.

Well, I'm happy to announce that you can, once more, buy golden dollar coins at face value!  With free shipping!  Happy days are here again!
100th Anniversary of Women's Right to Vote Coin Pack. A Turning Point In Our History
There's just one teensy-tiny hitch.  They're Canadian dollars.  And you can only buy five of them. And you have to have a Canadian Address. Still interested?  Visit HERE.

By the way, I found this amazing deal after reading a thread on Flyertalk.  Its about the Canadian Mint's $20 for $20 program that sells non-circulating silver coins at "face value."  The program is a terrible deal for several reasons that are explained in the thread.  Happy April Fool's Day, everyone!

UPDATE:  I'll be very disappointed if some Canadian MSer doesn't try ordering one set of these to his home address + "Unit 1A, Unit 1B... Unit 99Z," etc.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Lismacue House, Tipperrary, Ireland- A Hidden Ireland Property [UPDATE: Property is no longer with Hidden Ireland]

After our stay at the Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt, we drove down the back roads to Cahir and from there back up into County Tipperrary; where we were due to stay the night at Lismacue just outside of  Bansha.  I'd booked the property through Hidden Ireland and had seen some favorable reviews on Tripadvisor.  The drive turns directly off of the N24 just on the southern outskirts of Bansha.  It's easy to miss (we did), just keep your eyes open for the white stones marking the turnout and gates.  After making our way up the lovely lime allee', we were not disappointed by our first glimpse of the property.
Lismacue is a lovely old country house, dating back to 1813, that is still occupied by the original owner's family.
The house has five rooms in the guest wing (pictured above), though one was under repair during our stay.  We were the only guests that night and were warmly greeted by our hostess, Kate Nicholson.  Well, technically, we were first greeted by our hostess' very friendly dog, Luther.
Kate showed us to our room, with a double bed and a twin bed on the second floor.
The room featured lovely views of the surrounding countryside and an ensuite bath.  After leaving our bags in the room, we went out for a stroll around the grounds.  Lismacue sits out in the fields, with a horse paddock out front and a cow pasture just beyond the ha-ha at the edge of the lawn.
Around the bend in the drive is the lime allee and a quaint little stone bridge across the River Ara'.
Luther, the house dog, accompanied us on our walk.
Kate can provide dinner to guests if arranged in advance, and we had wisely chosen to to do.  We were invited to relax in the library where drinks were served and a nice fire was burning.

How very civilized.
Dinner was quite good, and we were joined by Kate's husband, Jim Nicholson.  He proved a convivial host, and we enjoyed our dinner.  While we only stayed the one night, I think that Lismacue would be a good base for exploring County Tipperary and the environs.  Both Cahir and Cashel are quite close by and the countryside is beautiful.

UPDATE:  It appears that Lismacue is no longer with Hidden Ireland.  However, the house can still be booked through their website at :  Interestingly, the entire house is also bookable through Airbnb.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Starwood Moments - Sing the National Anthem at Wrigley, or An Eminently Gameable Auction

Those who are involved in this hobby tend to have a particular frame of mind.  We like rules.  That is to say, we like figuring out what rules mean.  Sometimes digging into the rules, or Ts&Cs, of an offer/promotion can turn something that's interesting on its face into something that's actually very interesting.  Below is one example.

I've mentioned Starwood's "Moments" program before.  It's what allowed me to take my dad to see the Cubs in a Luxury Box at Wrigley.  Well, Starwood has another "Moments" offer that's very intriguing:

Starwood is auctioning a chance for the top three bidders the chance to audition to sing the National Anthem before a Cubs game.  The Cubs will select one of them to sing the Anthem.  That would definitely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But that's not what makes this auction so interesting.  What makes it interesting is what the Ts&Cs say about the two bidders who lose the auction.  They get their points back and they get a pair of luxury box tickets for later in the season.  Do you see what immediately leaped out at me?

Of course you do.  If you wanted luxury box tickets but didn't want to sing The Star Spangled Banner in front of thousands of people, you could try to win the auction and then try to lose the audition.  Just submit a terrible audition and ... Bang.  Free luxury box tickets.  Here are some pointers.

One small problem, though.  You might be facing a quasi-prisoner's dilemma situation where all three of the top bidders are trying to lose the audition.  If that happened, I would really love to be in the Cubs offices when those tapes come in.

UPDATE: As the auction nears it's close, bidding is up to over 100,000 Starpoints.  I'll admit I threw in a couple of bids early on, but to me, a one third chance of getting to (or having to) sing the Star Spangled Banner in front of a crowd isn't worth the points!

UPDATE: Auction closed with the top bid at 205,000 points!  Wow!  That's the equivalent of two first class tickets to Europe.  ETA: Bids keep getting updated.  Now its up over 220K points.  That's just nuts.

Friday, March 4, 2016

From a Standing Start: A Business Class Ticket to Europe

Many bloggers, including those on my sidebar, focus on really exotic travel (Maldives, Far East, Oceania, etc.), but my tastes are more prosaic.  Mrs. Points Ninja and I prefer Europe, as, at a guess, most casual travelers do.  Since getting into the miles & points game, we've traveled to Europe four times, each time in either First or Business class, and each time using miles.  Over the years, I've built up quite healthy miles balances and currently have enough for at least four more transatlantic (TATL) trips.  But, as a though experiment, this post will lay out a strategy for achieving a reasonable travel goal: one business class tickets to Europe.  Of course, a couple could use this same strategy to earn enough miles for two tickets.

How to do it?  Well, if you're an actual frequent flier, congratulations!  You may already have the 100,000-125,000 miles that a business class ticket will cost you.  For the rest of us, the answer is credit card sign up bonuses.  Caveat:  No one should consider this strategy if they plan to carry credit card debt, i.e. not paying your bill off in full each month.  If you have credit card debt, my best advice would be to work at paying it off first.

With that out of the way, let's look at possible strategies.  For the purposes of this post, I'll assume that the reader has 0 miles.  I'll try to get you to 125,000 miles in a program with decent TATL availability with the minimum number of credit card sign ups (and credit report pulls) as possible.


There are a lot of bloggers that love to hate Delta.  Gary at View from the Wing coined the term "Skypesos" to describe Delta's Skymiles.  There's some grounds for the hate, but I'm something of a Delta partisan.  Two of our past trips, and one upcoming trip, have been in Delta's Business Elite (now "DeltaOne") class.  It's a decent business class product and TATL availability, particularly in the shoulder season, isn't terrible.  Plus, business class tickets include access to Delta's Skyclubs during your trip.  With Delta, TATL business class would require at least 125,000 miles.  Amex has an exclusive relationship with Delta, so only their cards earn Skymiles.  Here's how to get there with three credit card applications:
  • Starwood American Express:  Currently Amex is offering 35,000 miles when you sign up for the Starwood Amex and spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.  The card carries a $95 annual fee, but it is waived the first year.  Cancel before you're first year is up and you'll pay no annual fee.  The nice thing about Starwood is that their points transfer to multiple airlines (including Delta) and you receive a bonus of 5,000 miles for every 20,000 miles you transfer.  Links for this offer can be found on Amex's home page or in any of the blogs on my sidebar.  OR, you could let me refer you and I'd earn a bonus when you signed up.  If you're interested, just email me at:
  • Starwood Small Business Amex: Essentially, this is the same offer as above, but for small businesses.  "But I don't have a small business" you say.  To that, I ask, have you ever sold anything on Ebay?  Then you have a small business.  Amex regularly approves small business applications for sole proprietor small businesses like this.  Lucky @ One Mile at a Time covers the card here.
  • Delta Gold Amex:  Get the two cards mentioned above first (you can apply for both on the same day).  Then wait a couple of months and pick up the Delta Gold Amex.  The current offer is 30,000 Skymiles for getting the card and spending $1,000 in the first 3 months.  You'll also receive a $50 statement credit for your first $50 Delta purchase (which can be a $50 Delta Gift card).  There's on annual fee the first year, and you can cancel the card when the fee comes due in a year.  I can refer you to this offer, but there are occasionally better offers available.  If one comes up, I'll update this post.  EDIT: The Frequent Miler offers useful info on looking for targeted (i.e., better) Amex offers HERE.
After completing the required initial spending (see my posts on Manufactured Spending for tips on how to do that) you'll have 76,000 Starpoints and 31,000 Skymiles.  And additional $4,000 in spending on either Starwood card would bring you up to a round 80,000 Starpoints which could be transferred into 100,000 Skymiles, bringing you to a total of 131,000 Skymiles.  Your total costs would be (at most) the cost of manufacturing $11,000 in spending, approximately $128.  Not bad for a TATL business class ticket.

British Airways

Generally speaking, British Airways Avios program has decent award availability on their own flights.  The trouble is that they carry exorbitant taxes and fees on award flights.  screensaveFor example, here's what pricing on a flight to London looks like:

Ouch!  Over $1,000.screensave  So, this isn't the best option for travel on the cheap.  I'll try to help you deal with those taxes, though.

  • British Airways Visa: This one's issued by Chase and has a great sign up offer discussed here by View from the Wing.  If you're willing to do some manufactured spending (or can put $20,000 in regular spending in the first year you have the card) you'd earn a total bonus of 100,000 Avios.  Bump your spending up to $25,000 and you'd have enough miles to cover a TATL business class ticket.  Bump it up to $30,00 in the first year and you'd qualify for a "travel together" award allowing two people to travel in business class for 125,000 miles (BUT, you pay taxes on both!).
  • Barclay Arrival Card:  You can take some of the sting out of those taxes if you sign up for the Barclay Arrival+ card.  It comes with a sign-up bonus of 40,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first three months and no annual fee the first year:
  • Again, I can refer you to this card, or you can find a public offer on  If you used your Arrival card to pay the taxes on your BA award, those 40,000 Arrival points would be good for $400 towards your taxes, bringing you down to about $700.  Still not great, but much cheaper than paying for a business class ticket, or even an economy ticket for that matter.
American Airlines

If you can find availability, American's Saver-level business class flights cost 100,000 AA miles.  Flight's on AA's own aircraft don't carry excessive fees, but watch out for the BA flights that will appear in online award search results.  Those will carry the same high fees that I discussed above.  But, at least getting to 100K miles with AA is pretty easy.

  • Citibank Platinum Select AA Mastercard - This card carries a $95 annual fee (waived the first year)) and comes with a 50,000 mile bonus for getting the card and spending $3,000 in the first three months.  The Frequent Miler discusses this offer, and others here, and his referral link is here.

  • Citibank Business AA Mastercard - This is another small business credit card that offers a 50,000 sign-up bonus for spending $3,000 in the first three months.  Like the personal card, the $95 annual fee is waived the first year.  The Frequent Miler discusses this offer, and others here, and his referral link is here.
  • Alternatively, you could get the two Amex Starwood cards discussed in the Delta section of this post.  Starwood points transfer to AA also, and taking this route would earn a total of 100,000 AA points once you include Starwood's transfer bonus.

In the near future, I'll be updating this post to add options for Lufthansa, and United, so stay tuned!