A few small app or card offers

Amex: Amex Offers has a Quiktrip in store (order via QT app) off $5 offer, can be used twice. And the Amex offer appears only available via the Amex app too. So basically you should install the Amex app, check if there are offers, add them if yes. Then install the QT app. The food items in QT actually are the best in gas stations (they actually have a kitchen :-) Tried today: the philly cheese stake and chicken flat bread. Total $7 (tax included, minus $5 makes it $2). Plus a large drink which is about $1.50 separately.

Chase Pay order ahead $5 off (first use): similar to the QT app, except in the case of Chase, they have a lot more restaurants, subway seems is the most popular (most stores), but I tried chick fil a, which I have not eaten for a while. You will also need to install Chase Pay app. Note I includes the links to iTunes app store here.

Last but not least, the Panera is offering $10 bonus card if one purchases $50 gift/egift card. I already got one, and plan to get another one (I am not too greedy since sometimes it takes time and effort to track down e-gift cards). :-)

Earning and burning points

Recently I started to realize buring (use) rewards points efficiently is as important as earning, if not more.

Chase Ultimate Rewards, Hyatt
I made a small mistake about a month ago when I transferred some Chase UR points to Hyatt. The impetus for doing that was I needed to book 3 nights of hotel at Hyatt Regency in Chicago (magnificent miles). And I found booking via Chase UR website costs about 45,000 points. But in split of a second, I mistook Hyatt charges 40,000 points for 3 nights (it’s actually only 2 nights, but my mind short circuited). And I did the 40,000 points transfer (1:1). After that I no longer have 45,000 UR points, and had to use some 6,000 points plus $430 for those 3 nights.

So there was the cost of my small mistake. But the story did not end here, as I heard from one of my friend Hyatt points was a big saver in his family Florida trip. So I looked for Hyatt Place or Hyatt House for the summer trip we are taking in the east. I was able to book the free night (yearly) at Boston Harbor, also booked 5 nights either at Hyatt Place or Hyatt House in Owings Mills (Baltimore), Amherst (Buffalo), Morristown (NJ), and Boston Braintree (south Boston). Note both Hyatt Place and House have free breakfast.

Starwood Preferred Guest SPG
I know SPG points are valuable, and I have used them in various places including Shanghai, and this one with more pictures. Recently Marriott and SPG joined forces, and I have some points in MR and SPG but could not make a booking from either. So I transferred 5,000 points from MR to SPG (worth 1,666 SPG points), combined with 1,400 points I already have, I was able to make a booking at Aloft BWI (baltimore airport). I stayed at Aloft ORD before and have some ideas how it feels.

Switch to Ting wireless, mistake on car insurance

I decided to switch my wireless carrier again, from H2O wireless to Ting. I stayed with H2O for over a year, mostly satisfied, except recently I started using its per minute data, which seems burn my money quickly. I heard about Ting from friend before, but I forgot to do the referral. :-( Anyway I switched my wife’s T-mobile prepaid to Ting last week, and I just did mine this evening. The only thing Ting needs is the IMEI number of iPhone, the account number or the pin from the older carrier. In the case of t-mobile, it’s last 4 digits of phone number; the the case of the H2O, it’s the last 4 or SIM card number. Here is how to find it on iPhone: Settings => General => About => ICCID number. IMEI number can be found in similar fashion.

By doing this, essentially I combined my phone and my wife’s phone into one account. Besides that, my wife also gets some data usage, which she does not have previously.

Car accident and the rental coverage in car insurance
I used to have the rental coverage in my car insurance. But in recent review, I decided not to keep it for my 2012 Sienna to save some money (about $13.25 per 6 month), as I thought the extended warranty (service contract) will cover in the case of repair. A mistake on my side. Yesterday my wife got into an accident while driving sienna, and I need to bring it to car bodyshop, which also means I need a rental car. The cost is about $30 per day from Enterprise. So I think I will shell out about $200 (assume 7 days) while trying to save $13.25. :-(

Also, looking back I really should not have bought the extended warranty (EW) for the used certified Sienna. For 3 years besides the routine maintenance, the main cost is to fix the squirrels chewing the cables, and replace four tires. Both were not covered by the EW. Obviously they don’t cover accident either :-( I would put my money in my own pocket next time.

PS: the minivan is already in shop. It’s a bit surprising that I mostly used the Geico app for appointment and status checking.

PS2: it appears Ting is using T-mobile network, the signal is not as good as AT&T which is used by H2O wireless. There is network degradation or no signal near my work place :-(

Hit the hay 最近几年住过的酒店

十几年前我回国在上海一般就住一个如家或锦江之星,挑一个离地铁比较近的酒店,这样上班办事都比较方便。那时候没有小孩,旅馆主要就是睡个觉,干净清爽就可以了。快进几年,有了两个小孩,住的酒店要求也稍有提高。托酒店信用卡促销的福,攒了些点数或是free nights, 我也升级了住的旅馆。在上海常住的旅馆有,徐家汇的万丽酒店(courtyard Shanghai xujiahui), 她家所在的楼叫西藏大厦,出租车司机如不清楚可提这个名字。另一家是浦东的喜来登福朋酒店(four points by Sheraton, Shanghai pudong, 又叫由由酒店,楼的名字),注意她家旁边有喜来登酒店(Sheraton Shanghai pudong, 5 star vs four points 4 star), 不要搞错。这两家的房间起价大概是800人民币左右。

最近一次有幸住了回陆家嘴的柏悦酒店(park hyatt),这个标价是大概300多美金,我用的是hyatt卡的开卡free nights. 看了下用chase ultimate rewards points 的话是2万点一晚。小孩很喜欢,因为有一些没见过的features. 我的头被淋浴喷头砸了一下。Uncle Major 进大观园。:-)

在美国最近住Hampton inn 比较多。还是觉得Hampton inn 接地气一些。这家Hilton 系列的中档酒店设计简单,实用,且包早餐。一般我这样小兵级别的人出差就住它家。对有小孩的家庭包早餐是一个挺有用的feature. Other hotels have similar feature include Hilton garden inn, holiday inn express and clarion. Last but not least, hhonors is the Hilton hotels reward program. Hampton inn usually costs 20,000 points (roughly $100).

Last but not least, tips. I know it’s a sensitive topic, but typically I gave $2 tip for the maid at Hampton (or equivalent hotels), put the note stating “for the maid” on the top of the bill so there is no confusion. Interestingly, in China I noticed the tipping culture is popular in Shanghai foreign brand hotels (4 star or above), I do give tips for people who handle my luggages (roughly $1 for a piece, which is similar to US standard). But in less developed areas, there is no such things as tip. People will laugh it off and give back the money.

Hotels in Shanghai I stayed in recent years

Courtyard in Xujiahui (formerly Tibet hotel, as you can see the rooftop design, tripAdvisor, marriott website). Good location and friendly people. I recall the first time I visited (2011), I used my Marriott rewards and silver status, the front desk especially got the leader over and greet. I suspect at that time, perhaps there were not many guests with Marriott silver status. In fact for me it’s just a benefit of Marriott card via Chase. The location is really nice. There is a restaurant next to the hotel. And some convenience stores in walking distance. It’s within the walking distance of Xujiahui business district. It costs 10,000 points Marriott points or about 700 to 800 CNY per night. I stayed there a few times.

Four Points by Sheraton in Pudong (starwood hotel website, tripAdvisor). It costs 4000 SPG points. It’s bigger than the Courtyard Xujiahui, in fact many things in Pudong is bigger than Puxi, think it as downtown vs. suburban in the US (as one of my Haigui friends once said). The cash rate is between $72 to about $200 per night (depends on room).

Another hotel, I have not stayed, but will stay this June, is Park Hyatt in Shanghai Pudong (tripAdvisor). I am going to use my Hyatt free night there. The going rate is a bit expensive, I think.

Note I used to stay at budget hotels in Shanghai back in 2006/7. Now with family and kids, I can no longer do that.

Inflight wifi

I’d read this one first, because it explains the technology and the players.

Gizmodo (Adam Clark Estes 5/04/15 3:41pm): Every Major Airline’s Wifi Service, Explained and Ranked

Some background why Gogo is the dominant player at this time.
Bloomberg (Sam Grobart | August 26, 2015): Why Gogo’s Infuriatingly Expensive, Slow Internet Still Owns the Skies

RunwayGirlNetwork has a lot of articles on this topic, such as the following:
US transcon war heats up as Virgin America taps ViaSat for Internet By Seth Miller

Gogo to launch global Ground-to-Orbit connectivity (a bit old, note 2014/03)

14 Oct 2015 JetBlue hits major milestones with Fly-Fi rollout By Seth Miller →

Now you know carrier wise, Jet Blue is the leader in terms of inflight wifi. This is consistent with the Gizmodo article above.

The Gogo AA dispute
Bloomberg: Gogo Plummets as American Airlines Eyes Competitor ViaSat Michaela Ross Mary Schlangenstein

16 Feb 2016 American looks to swap Gogo for ViaSat on 200 aircraft By Seth Miller →

Beyond sky
Wi-Fi on Cruises: Five Popular Ships Ranked Written by Cynthia Drescher May 15, 2015. Note the newer generation technology behind the inflight wifi and cruise ship wifi are similar: satellite. The thing impressed me (quote below): Speed tests on a preview cruise, with every passenger provided complimentary access, measured an average of 5.00 Mbps download and 4.33 Mbps upload.

Tax

(Update 02-23-2016) Got the refund from Uncle Sam. From filing to receive refund only takes 7 days via turbo tax web version. Now I am waiting till 4/15 for the state because I owe money to show me state :-)

(Update 02-16-2016) I filed the tax last night, since I got almost all the forms I need. In case some other form showed up and it it’s meaningful, I can always do an amended return. Again I used the Fidelity deal mentioned below ($15 off $55 for premier version).

(Update 02-09-2016) I found a possible meaningful deduction or credit for those with High Deductible Health Insurance Plan. I found I can get about $1400 more back after filling in the HSA (Health Saving Account) information, it asked me do I have HDP plan on Dec 1st 2015, the answer is “Yes”.

(Original 02-02-2016) It’s that season again. I received two W-2s lately (I know I know :-), and tonight I started working on it. Note I’ve done Federal tax using TurboTax online version since 2001 (ever since I worked full time). I know we can get discount from the PC version from time to time, but I felt it’s worth the money to use the online version so that I know I always have a copy somewhere on the cloud (note back in 2001 cloud was a far far place compared to today, I recall I was using dial up Internet at the time). This could come handy when sometimes I need a 1040 for home refinance etc. I know one can have a backup of desktop version too, but it better be kept in a safe place and personally I prefer turbo tax (intuit) do it. It’s a bit like personal safety deposit box at bank.

Back to the topic. There are still places we can get some discount using the online version, note there are many versions too, I used mostly Deluxe or Premier version. Some of the places I have used (or knew of) in the past: essentially an affiliate link from bank, brokerage website etc: vanguard, ADP (seems no longer available), Bank of America, Scottrade etc. More recently I think the deal offered by Fidelity, Discover are good. Both have up to $20 off: $7 off (Deluxe) or $15 off (premier version, that’s what I used last year 2015 tax season, for $40). And I used this one again this year. It seems both links are available to everyone. I know in the past someimes the links are just for customers. Last but not least, Southwest offers 1000 miles (roughly $10, so not as sweet as the fidelity or discover deal if you go for the premier version, but still good if you are into the LUV miles :-)

Federal Only, features, and free to use
I don’t use their State version very often though. I recall once I used it, probably because I was expecting a meaningful federal refund and decided to spent a little. And it backfired. The problem was I put a negative amount in the income field for my wife, and the software did not detect it. But the state revenue department noticed it and sent my return back. I was very angry initially at Turbo Tax. But their accountant was very calm and professional. So I corrected it eventually.

Over the years I saw Turbo Tax software improved consistently. There are two modes: wizard mode which walks one through the steps, ideal for new user; or the topic mode which is better suited for experienced user, basically I know which topic (income, deduction etc.) I need to jump into and it saves me time this way. It also added the “import” capability over the years: from W-2 to 1099 to stock trading records. It implemented 2 factor authentication too, so gives a peace of mind.

All those features are free to use as long as you don’t file tax via them. For State tax I actually used it as a verification tool. So this is a free tool for verification for those DIYers. I do file tax using Turbo Tax as I think its checking mechanism reduces the chance of being audited, and it gets refund faster.

Refund
Most of the time I got some federal refund, and due a small tax for state. Also I do direct deposit all the same for refunds. That’s usually faster than check. Once I joked with one of my coworker, he said he always get some tax refund, but he was not in a hurry to get it. I asked him why. He said because if he gets it, his wife will spend it, and they would not have money for summer vacation. I really love his thinking, and his wife’s spending habit. I think we as consumers have this trend more or less, because we feel a lot richer when we get a big chunk of money :-)

Buy low

This is an email I received recently, it notified me that my former employer withdrew the unvested petition of 401k from my account. You may think it’s bad. But I still think it’s a good deal because I contributed about $17,365 of my own money bewteen 2008/11 and 2010/02. The money doubled in about 6 years. Note during the time there’s financial crisis. 

  

So after all my gas gift card was NOT stolen

I purchased a $100 Circle K gas gift card via eBay a few weeks ago, a few days ago I started to use it, and I found the initial balance is $75 instead of the $100 as advertised. See below, I spent $12.xx on the gas (imagine that a few years ago), and I saw $62.xx remaining.

IMG_1556

So I was worried the card is stolen, and I filed a claim on eBay and whined about it on wechat. This afternoon I decided to cash out the card via other gift card, and to my surprise, it has the correct value: after I bought $75 other gift card, it still has $12.xx remaining. I was wrong. The reason I worried it could be stolen is I saw people talked about stolen gas card (same brand), and it’s not too hard to crack a 16 digit code.

You may wonder why I just pay credit card for gas, and go through the trouble of buying gas gift card, and had to use it at a specific store, also keep track of balances. Well, there is some savings, to be short. Basically I can get some rebate via eBates (going to eBay), I also get some eBay bucks, plus sometimes I buy $100 eBay GC at $95. Last but not least, I paid $95 for $100 gas card. So the savings add up. I spent somewhere between $85 and $87.5 for a $100 gas card. On the other hand, nothing is truly free, with the savings comes with risk. I think from now on, I will stick to credit card: this quarter I can use either Chase Freedom/Discover Cash Bonus for 5% cash/points back, and in normal times I could use the Sam’s Club MasterCard, which also gives 5% cash back (in a check issued once a year).