Once or twice a year I talk to Scott Higgins, CEO of Veterans’ Advantage, and see what is new over there.  I wrote about that recently, but this post is about something else that Scott is impassioned about – Identity Theft amongst veterans.  He referenced articles that say that veterans are twice as likely to be victims of identity theft.  This does not surprised me as in military life we must give our social security number for just about everything so we are trained to respond as if it is no big deal.  And while it is no big deal to hand that information over to your personnel NCO, who has to follow some strict (Personal Identity Information)PII rules, it is quite another to hand out that info to every sales clerk who asks.  The military has recognized this within our functions and taken some steps such as giving you a CAC card ID number rather than listing your SSN as in the past.

Here is a page from the Veterans Advantage site that explains their ID theft assistance service that is included with membership.  I just want to highlight some of the key points from Scott:

1.  Be safe: Do not hand out your PII unless you really need to.  Outside of the military, ask the requestor if they really need your entire SSN, DD214, etc.  Often they will say no or let you get by with just the last four.

2.  Be smart: Don’t be fooled by “free” military discounts or free memberships.  Often these sites are just gathering your data to sell to someone else.

3.  Be suspicious: Do research on what kind of company you give your PII to.  If you don’t know them well, check with the BBB to see if there are any complaints against them.

4.  Data grabs are big business.  Do business with companies that do not ask for excessive data and don’t ask for a copy of your military ID or other such steps that can exploit your PII.

Be careful out there and counsel those you supervise to do likewise.  My nightmare used to be getting my wallet stolen and now that seems trivial compared with the horror stories I hear about victims of ID theft.  If you have a Veterans’ Advantage membership, be sure to use their service that comes along with the membership to help you in case of ID theft.

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We received an email a little while back from Katie Pelletier, of Milecards, which is a website that, “that lets consumers compare travel credit cards based on their own personal travel goals and spending habits”. Her contention is that Airline cards are worse for generating miles on airlines than bank cards. Some examples are provided below, which is a copy of the email that she sent us. I will put my conclusion here, because it’s a lot of reading – I absolutely agree with her. Airline cards rarely provide any substantial category bonuses, and other than signup bonuses, category bonuses are one of the best ways to rapidly accumulate miles. Most airline cards provide maybe 2 miles/dollar on that airline’s purchases, and 1 mile/dollar on all other purchases, whereas most bank cards provide some compelling category bonuses, such as on grocery stores, restaurants, office supply stores, etc. And, depending on which rewards program you use, you can transfer to a variety of airlines, hotels, Amtrak, etc. You should use your Airline branded card for a signup bonus, and then PUT IT AWAY!

I have around 20 credit cards, but I don’t carry them all. What I carry around is thusly:

 

-Amex Blue Cash Preferred, which gets cash back – 6% at grocery stores, and 3% at gas stations

-Chase Sapphire Preferred, which gets 2 Ultimate Rewards points/dollar on dining and travel, although for April, June, and July I’ve substituted the Chase Freedom, which is getting 5 UR points/dollar at restaurants and Lowe’s.

-Chase Ink Bold, which gets 5 UR points/dollar at office supply stores, cell phone and internet service. And I only carry this when I know I’m going to Staples.

-Barclaycard Arrival, which gets 2.2% back on all purchases when redeemed for travel, and which I use for every purchase that doesn’t have a category bonus.

 

So really I only carry 3-4 cards. If I’m working on a signup bonus, I’ll also carry that card; for instance, I’m now working on my extra 20,000 Lifemiles bonus.

Without further adieu, I’ve included the email that Ms. Pelletier sent to us:

 

Let’s crunch the numbers using Delta and two new cards from American Express: the Amex EveryDay Card with no annual fee and the EveryDay Preferred with a $95 annual fee.

Both of these new cards earn Delta SkyMiles faster than credit cards which say Delta on them such as the Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express or Platinum Delta SkyMiles American Express.

MileCards.com Director Brian Karimzad breaks down the “Why”

1. The new Amex cards earn bonuses two ways. First, they can earn extra points on on grocery spending (2 – 3x) and the Preferred earns a bonus on gas spending (2x). The Delta cards do not.

2. The Amex cards earn a bonus on all spending when you use the card for enough transactions each month (20 times for the no fee EveryDay earns a 20% bonus and 30 times for the Preferred earns a 50% bonus).

3. The “Membership Rewards” points the Amex cards earn can be transferred directly to your Delta SkyMiles account with no dilution.

Here’s a look at the numbers:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average family spends $212 a month on gas, $327 on groceries, and $223 on dining, with $1,815 total in categories commonly payable with a credit card.

Based on that spending, here’s how many Delta miles a family can earn in year with each card, assuming it’s used at least 30 times a month (about once per day):

Amex EveryDay Preferred ($95) – 48,258

Amex EveryDay ($0) – 30,845

Starwood Preferred Guest Amex ($65) – 26,780

Gold Delta SkyMiles ($95) – 21,780

Platinum Delta SkyMiles ($195)– 21,780

Amex Premier Rewards Gold ($175) – 28,248

The non-Delta cards earn 30% to over 2x more points than the Delta branded cards in this case.  And they can all be transferred at full value to a Delta SkyMiles account.

What about other airlines?

Delta is not alone in having non-airline branded cards that could earn you more points than the airline branded cards. All of the biggest mile programs in the U.S. have alternative cards that can earn more points than the branded card:

United MileagePlus: The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x points on dining, travel) and Ink Plus / Bold for Business (bonus points on office supplies, hotels, telecommunications) let you transfer points directly into United miles.

American AAdvantage: The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express lets you transfer to American miles with a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 you transfer.

Southwest Rapid Rewards: The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x points on dining, travel) and Ink Plus / Bold for Business (bonus points on office supplies gas, telecommunications) let you transfer points directly into Southwest points

What do you sacrifice?

More points might equal less perks: Airline branded cards typically include a checked bag fee waiver and priority boarding. So if you check a bag a few times a year it can be worthwhile to carry an airline card for the privilege.  For frequent flyers, airline cards offer points toward elite status qualification which leads to even more special treatment for road warriors. Cards that let you transfer points to multiple airlines usually don’t offer this perk.

But you gain flexibility. The points you earn with cards that transfer to multiple airline programs give you several airlines to transfer to, opening up many more possibilities. For example the Amex cards transfer to Air France, Hawaiian Airlines, and JetBlue among others. In most cases these transfers are online and instant.

They also offer options to use your points like cash to book on any airline, meaning you’ll always be able to find value for your points.

How can you keep up?

Use an online tool. The CardFinder tool at MileCards.com is the only tool available that lets you filter cards by airline mile program and calculates the three areas of point earning based on personalized spending habits: category bonuses, annual threshold bonuses, and sign on bonuses. It shows the exact number of miles you will earn both from cards that earn directly into airline accounts as well as those that let you transfer points into the mile program. It also lets you factor the value of baggage fee savings and foreign transaction fee waivers.

Examples

Here are how the major airlines’ own cards stack up for mile earning against alternatives that let you transfer points into their programs

Delta SkyMiles

Gold Delta SkyMiles ($95) – 21,780

Platinum Delta SkyMiles ($195)– 21,780

Amex EveryDay Preferred ($95) – 48,258

Amex EveryDay (no annual fee) – 30,845

Amex Premier Rewards Gold ($175) – 28,248

Starwood Preferred Guest Amex ($65) – 26,780 (includes 5,000 mile bonus for transferring 20,000 points to Delta)

United MileagePlus

Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95) – 26,168

United MileagePlus Explorer ($95) – 21,780

United MileagePlus Club Card ($395) – 32,670

Southwest Rapid Rewards

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier ($99) –  27,780

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus ($69) – 24,780

Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95) – 26,168

American AAdvantage

Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage ($95) – 21,780

Citi Gold AAdvantage ($50) – 21,780

Starwood Preferred Guest American Express ($65) – 26,780 (includes 5,000 mile bonus for transferring 20,000 points to American)

Assumptions: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average family spends $212 / month on gas, $327 on groceries, and $223 on dining, with $1,815 total in categories commonly payable with a credit card.

Happy Travels,

Kellie Pelletier

917-514-5851

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I received a follow up email from Chase about the 10 best military credit cards – it came from Alexis Martin, from Chase Communications and Public Affairs. It goes as follows:

 

Hi,

Congratulations on the launch of your site. I’m reaching out about your “10 Best Credit Cards for Military Members” article from Monday with some information on our Chase Military products, that I thought you might find helpful.

Chase Military products, The MILITARY STAR® Rewards MasterCard®, the Air Force Club Membership MasterCard®, the Army MWR MasterCard®, the Navy MWR MasterCard®, and the Marine Corps MasterCard®, all offer valuable cash back rewards for our Military servicemembers, so they can earn at home and while they are away.  Chase Military Cardmembers are never charged an annual fee or foreign transaction fees.

Additionally, all Chase Military products offer Blue Star Deployment Benefits to assist families when a loved one is deployed. It’s a complimentary benefit for being a Chase Military Credit Cardmember. Program benefits include 100% refund of interest and fees incurred during military deployment and continued use of the card by authorized users during deployment.

Chase also features a dedicated Chase Military Service Team for account and product questions. The team is staffed by trained experts who are knowledgeable about financial matters related to military life. Some team members are even veterans of the Armed Forces. The dedicated customer service hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 1-877-469-0110. Overseas: 1-318-340-3308 (collect). TDD: 1-800-582-0542.

If you have any other questions on Chase Military products, or would like to speak to a Chase representative, please let me know.

Thanks!

Alexis

Alexis A. Martin || Communication and Public Affairs || JPMorgan Chase & Co. || alexis.a.martin@chase.com || Office: 302.282.4911 || 201 N. Walnut St., DE1-1037, Wilmington, DE 19801

 

I checked out some of their offerings, and they’re ok. You have the 4 main service cards for Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines, which offer 2% cash back on all service-related merchants, MWR, exchanges and commissaries, and 1% back on everything else, all without annual or foreign exchange fees. There is also a Military Star card, which in addition offers 2% back at the online Exchange, and 2% everywhere for the first 60 days. You can see a sample below:

Credit Cards   ChaseMilitary.com.png

They also all offer Blue Star Deployment Benefits, as below:

bluestar.png

If you’re going on deployment, because of the Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act, all credit cards qualify for these benefits, so I’m not sure it adds anything, but it’s nice to have some military-specific cards. Does anyone have any experience with these cards?

 

Posted by glenn | 6 Comments

News courtesy of reader Charles that DoD has made a huge addition to Pre-Check eligibility by including all 800,000 DoD and Coast Guard civilians starting 15 April.  News release here.  Here is their main blurb:

WASHINGTON, March 26, 2014 – Beginning April 15, Defense Department and Coast Guard civilian employees will be able to take advantage of the TSA Pre-check expedited screening program at more than 115 airports across the country.

“We’ve worked closely with TSA over the past few months to expand the Pre-check program to include the department’s 800,000 civilian employees,” said Mary Snavely-Dixon, director of the Defense Manpower Data Center. “Our civilian employees play vital roles in our nation’s defense each and every day. Expanding TSA’s program to include them is great news.”

As always, you need to have a CAC card to use the service.  Travelers should enter their CAC card ID number in the “Known Traveler” field when they make their reservations.  Note that you can use this for business or personal travel.

For the civilians, there is one additional step they need to do.  They need to “Opt-in” to the program.  Visit the “milConnect” at https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/milconnect.  Select the “My Profile” menu tab after logging in and follow the instructions to Opt-in.  Note that all military members are pre-enrolled so no need to worry about this step.  Good luck and enjoy something good happening on 15 April!

Posted by glenn | 6 Comments

Good morning everyone, we have some exciting news to announce – our blog has been added to the Top 100 Points & Miles Blogs:

 

http://www.mightytravels.com/top100milespointsblogs

 

I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of mightytravels before receiving the update, but it’s good to be recognized. We couldn’t have done it without you, our loyal readers, so Thank You!

 

If you want to check out the list, and vote for our blog, that’d be great, if not, no worries. I haven’t heard of all the blogs on the list, but I’m fairly certain we’re the only military-themed one.

 

Other news:

 

-US Airways and TAM join Oneworld, and apparently, US Airways old, idiosyncratic routing rules are still in place, which could be a good or bad thing depending on what agent you talk to. You can now use BA Avios to book domestic US Air routes; Avios are distance-based, and have some really good redemption values depending on the distance.

 

-Southwest has devalued their points, from 60 points per dollar to 70 points per dollar. The blow is slightly less for me, as I’ve gotten the Companion Pass.

 

-There have been some stories that Vanilla Reload purchases w/ credit cards are going away, but it’s still working at my CVS in Philly. Have you tried your town?

 

-Finally, there’s a new American Express Card out with the highest signup bonus I’ve seen yet – 200,000 points! Application page is here. I don’t know much about it yet, so I’ll be researching it and putting out a subsequent post.

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I have written about LoungeBuddy, the airport lounge finding app, since being asked to be in the early Beta last July.  I appreciated the fact that they made it military-friendly by including all USO lounges.  They started with only about 50 airports, but have continued to add to that number and just announced they are up to 400 airports.  Unless you are going to Kotzebue, AK (I have) this should cover about all your travels.  However, they solicit your input for other airports that they should add to the database.  you can get the latest version at iTunes or go to their webpage here.

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They also fixed what I considered a drawback.  Up until now, you have to create a whole trip itinerary before you could search for a lounge.  Now you can just flip it open and hit the button for the airport you are in and presto, there are your options depending upon your airline status, credit cards you own, being a Service Member, etc.

Here is the key part of their news release:

…the new and improved LoungeBuddy

We’ve listened to your feedback and incorporated many of your ideas into the next version of the App. This version features:

  • The option to view lounges without creating a trip
  • An improved interface
  • Expanded credit card, membership and elite status options
  • Faster processing, bug fixes and data updates

Remember, just shake your iPhone when you’re using LoungeBuddy to tell us what you think!

 

And  for those of you who asked, yes, they are working on an Android version!  Sign up here to be notified when it is ready.

Posted by glenn | One Comment

Before starting this post, I wanted to give a little plug for my other blog, called Military Finance, which is part of the Saverocity blog. I started it about a month ago, so it’s still a little light on content, but any suggestions would be welcome! It deals with all things military personal finance (non-travel of course). With that out of the way, onto my final installment.

 

After our last night in Cusco (which I think is my favorite city in Peru), we woke up early the next morning for a long, 8hr bus ride to Puno, which is the major Peruvian city on Lake Titicaca. The bus ride was comfy, and beverages were available the whole way, but it was a long and slow grind. Along the way, we stopped at several sites; unfortunately none was notable enough to mention, other than the llama farm/restaurant where we stopped for lunch. I’ve included some adorable pics below.

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We arrived in Puno in the late afternoon, and unfortunately found the city to be very dirty and polluted, although the people were very nice. The combination of 12,000 ft elevation and gas fumes everywhere prompted us to stay nearby our hotel that night. We stayed at the La Hacienda Puno, which, while the staff was incredibly nice and accomodating, I cannot recommend at all to stay at this hotel. The hotel was cold, and not comfortable, although the breakfast buffet was decent.

 

We woke up to a beautiful day the next morning, got picked up at our hotel, and taken to a boat, and onwards to the famous floating reed villages of Lake Titicaca, inhabited by the Uros tribe. It was quite surreal to imagine that these people live their entire lives atop 6ft of floating reeds, only rarely going into town to trade.

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The entrance island, where we paid a toll

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We got to ride on one of their boats for 10 soles (~$3)

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In their native dress, with some Swedish friends we met

 

After a couple hours learning about their culture, we boarded a speed boat to take us to Taquile Island, and really see how natives that were cut off from the world truly lived. BTW, you can spend a night on the floating islands; a room costs about 30-40 Soles per night. You’d have to inquire with a tour operator.

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This is a room in the only hotel on the floating islands

 

Taquile Island is a de facto isolated community, with their own government and justice system. They don’t pay taxes to Peru, speak mostly Quechua, and pretty much keep to themselves. They subsist on mostly fish and plants, and work hard throughout their lives, meaning we saw some very old but very healthy people carrying huge loads up steep trails while we were there. It is a beautiful, peaceful island, and the lunch they provided us (Lake Titicaca trout) was delicious. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting there.

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It was forecast to be a rainy day

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Typical adobe huts

 

We stayed again at the hotel that night, then caught an early flight from Juliaca, the nearest airport to Lake Titicaca, on Avianca to Lima. We had a several-hour layover, so decided to hang out in a lounge. BTW, just a quick plug for the app Loungebuddy, it’s great, and offers solid reviews of lounges at most (not all) airports. There are two lounges in the international terminal in Lima Airport, the Sumaq VIP lounge and the VIP Club Lounge. Both are right next to each other, and enterable either with a business class or above ticket, or with Prioritypass. We had both, so decided to use our business class tickets to save the fee for my wife. Here is a review of the Sumaq, and here is a review of the VIP Club. Both had slow wifi, because they were both packed, but I would say go to the Sumaq. It is bigger, has comfier chairs, has better (and stronger) pisco sours, and has showers.

 

We boarded our flight from LIM – BOG, an Airbus A330, and were very pleased with our seats:

avianca.jpg

They were not completely lie-flat, but were close, and anyways it was only slightly over a 3 hour flight, plus they had The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug on the entertainment options, so I couldn’t sleep! The food and service were both excellent; I am very pleasantly surprised by Avianca.

 

After another hour-long flight from BOG – Cartagena on an Airbus A320, we were in Cartagena and our on way to the beach! A short cheap cab ride (200,000 Colombian Pesos – about $10) brought us to the Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros. We had a lovely time there, it was a very clean hotel, right on the beach, with a great pool and very friendly staff. We stayed three nights there, but only paid for one, because we got a best rate guarantee for the other two. (BTW, this went towards my IHG Big Win promotion, where my targeted offer is for 160,000 IHG Rewards points!). The breakfast buffet was great, we got upgraded to an ocean view roomw/ balcony because I’m Platinum Elite (which you get with the Chase IHG Visa), and we got a free gift at the front desk every day (which was only two bottles of water, but it was in the 80s-90s, so it was more welcome than you’d think!).

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The only ocean room available was two queen beds

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Ocean view from our balcony! Not too shabby!

 

The beach and water were really nice, but not as relaxing as you’d like. Unfortunately, touts hawking goods, food and massages bother you every 5 minutes; I finally got to saying, “Tengo un allergia” (I have an allergy) to every passerby, which I think sufficiently startled them to stay away. That particular beach is the perfect size for a nice 30 minute run, although the downside of the hotel location is that you need to take a cab to visit downtown Cartagena.

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running for my life from a vicious predator!

 

Downtown Cartagena is a totally cool, quaint village surrounded by tall, thick walls erected by the Spaniards, and is totally worth to walk through both during the day, and then again later at night, as you’ll see and meet different people both times. The San Felipe Castle is ok to walk through once, but I wouldn’t recommend a guide, as it’s not that extensive. There are many cafes and restaurants, and quaint little shops in the downtown area; just watch if you’re walking in the streets, as drivers don’t always follow the rules of the road! We ate at Casa de Secorro, which was good, but not amazing, and the 2nd night ate amazing carne asada at a roadside stall called Donde Javier with some cheap Colombian beer, probably the runner-up for most enjoyable meal of the trip!

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I loved the overhanging balconies and beautiful architecture!

 

Our trip back was uneventful, on the same Copa airlines flights we arrived on. Thanks to our Global Entry, courtesy of Amex Platinums, we cruised through immigration and customs, and drove back to pick up our son from my parents. A most enjoyable trip!

Posted by glenn | No Comments

I just wanted to breakup my trip report with a quick update on two cards I’m interested in.

 

First, I read another excellent article by PFDigest that one could get a 2nd Citi Exec AA card for a 2nd 100k AA miles sign up bonus, even if you’ve already gotten one. You just need to wait a certain amount of time, no one quite knows how long, but I waited 4 weeks after applying for my first one. I’d already gotten my 100k AA bonus (which I used on my parents…in a subsequent article), but was hungry for another one. Luckily, I have a CVS near me that’s frequently stocked w/ Vanilla Reloads, so the $10k spend in 3 months is no problem at all.

 

I applied this Monday, and just as before, I got a screen having me call a number to verify information. I called, and within 5 minutes I was approved. “Dr. Sheep, is a $19k credit line enough?”….”Sure!”. I don’t need that much, but as I explained before, the more total credit you have the better. They said I’d be getting my card by the 31st, but yesterday on the 26th I received this:

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I got my 2nd card in TWO DAYS! I don’t know why or how Citi is allowing people to get two Citi Exec cards, but I’m a huge fan! It’s not the best deal ever – there is a $450 annual fee, but remember, you get a $200 statement credit after spending $200 on anything…so really $250. $250 for 100k AA miles. 0.25 cents per mile??? Not too shabby! While Citi does waive annual fees because of the SCRA, they’re one of the more restrictive companies, so YMMV.

 

For the 2nd deal, I applied for and received in January the US Bank Lifemiles Visa Signature through this link, which offered 20k Avianca Lifemiles miles after the first purchase. It waives the annual fee the first year and after that is $75, but remember that US Bank waives annual fees for military members. I’m interested in Lifemiles, because they are in the Star Alliance and have some generous routing rules for Star Alliance partner routes. Well, I found out there is a more generous signup bonus offer out there. There is a 40k Lifemile potential bonus out there, 20k miles after the first purchase, and 20k more after $3k spend in 120 days. The signup link is here.

 

I called US Bank yesterday, and asked if they could match that offer on my account. Ostensibly, the rep said he couldn’t find that offer anywhere (maybe he doesn’t ready boardingarea blogs!), but helpfully he said if I mailed or faxed a printout of the page to them, they could match that offer on my account. I saved a screenshot of the application page, wrote a cover letter w/ my account info, and faxed it. FAXED IT?!? Wasn’t the Cold War won with fax machines??? I don’t actually have a fax machine, I use an amazing website called Hellofax, which lets you save signatures, edit online documents, and fax them over the intrawebs. I highly recommend it, it makes everything so much easier.

 

I will finish my trip report and tell you how to book a similar award flight tomorrow.

 

Posted by glenn | 4 Comments

I went over a little of Lima and Cusco in the first installment of my trip report. Unfortunately, we only had 7 days in Peru, and wanted to see several different sights, so I didn’t really get immersed that much in the cities. For more thorough looks at these places, check out Scott at Milevalue’s post about top 10 things to do in Peru.

 

The next morning after our day in Cusco, we awoke early, got another OK breakfast buffet w/ lots of coca tea, for the altitude headaches, then we were off to the Sacred Valley. The roads in Cusco are still Inca-era, so two-way roads that barely fit one car are the norm…it makes for an interesting ride to say the least!

 

Along the way, we stopped an a llama/alpaca farm, and got to see how local Peruvians created textiles and other handicrafts. It was a brazen attempt to get us to buy stuff, but entertaining and informative nonetheless. We got to feed alfalfa to llamas which was pretty cool!

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you have to pay 1 Peruvian sole (~30cents) to take a picture with them

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a friend we made during the trip

 

We made a stop after that in Pisac, again ostensibly to “visit an authentic Peruvian market”, but it was nothing more than another attempt to get us to buy tourist tchochkes…it was the most annoying part of our entire tour, but at least I got to try some of their chicha, which is corn beer whose recipe predates the Incans.

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tasty, but not very strong. our guide said it’s about 1% alcohol

 

After lunch at a beautiful hacienda, it was on to Ollantaytambo, which is probably the most impressive Incan archeological site outside of Machu Picchu. It always amazes me, when I asked the guides where the quarries for the rocks were, to find out how far they dragged the rocks to create these huge and beautiful cities.

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although impressive, this was just a warm-up for Machu Picchu!

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After we were done there, we were taken to our accomodations for the night, which was at The San Augustin Urubamba. It was beautiful hotel with a large garden, pool (it was too chilly to go swimming), and restaurant. Unfortunately it’s about a 20 minute walk to downtown Urubamba, which truthfully I didn’t find was worth the walk anyways. The restaurant was decent, not delicious, and unfortunately the hotel’s wifi only worked in the lobby, but the rooms were comfortable and it was amazingly quiet and peaceful at night, which was good because we needed to wake up early for our trip the next day to Machu Picchu! We boarded trains for a 2 hour ride on Perurail from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, right below Machu Picchu and the staging point for buses up the mountain.

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the overhead viewing windows were clutch for viewing the towering mountains!

 

The ride there is very beautiful, along the roiling Urubamba River through amazing precipices. There is one stop along the way, for those who wish to do the one day hike up the mountain to the Inca Trail and on to Machu Picchu. Also, there are 4 day hikes along the Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu. My wife didn’t want to hike, but I might come back with my son to do the hike once he’s old enough.

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Upon reaching Aguas Calientes, we were shepherded onto buses, and thus began a very harrowing, multi-hairpin turn climb on a surprisingly narrow road up the mountain to Machu Picchu’s gates. After checking our ticket, we walked up a small walkway, and then:

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I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures, but they honestly do not do it justice. In pictures, you can really see all the surroundings, feel and smell the air. I think other than Ankgor Wat, this is the most amazing place I’ve ever been. Our tour lasted around 3 hours, taking us all around the ruins, and our tour guide, Edgar, who’s been there over 1000 times since 86’ and speaks 7 languages, was incredibly knowledgable. Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets to Wayna Picchu, on the opposite peak, but it was still an amazing trip. It is very crowded at peak hours, and if you can make it there at sunrise when no one is there, I’m sure it’s better, but we just couldn’t accommodate that on this trip.

 

After our tour, we had a huge lunch back at Aguas Calientes, got another Incan massage, boarded the train back to Ollantaytambo, then caught a ride with Condor Travel back to the Maytaq Wasin Hotel again to rest after our long day.

 

In my next report, I’ll go over Lake Titicaca, and then our trip onto Cartagena, Colombia. After that, I’ll go over how to book the award flight.

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Andy: I’m back! My wife and I just got back from a Spring Break vacation down to to South America. We decided that if we get stationed overseas, it would be harder to visit there, so we might as well do it now while we’re still in the States and closer. I booked us business class tickets from Washington to Lima, with an open-jaw, and a stopover in Cartagena, Colombia before heading back (I’ll go over in a subsequent post how I booked that).

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Copa business class seats…ok for a 4 hr flight, but not as nice as Avianca

 

Of course, we had to go see the highlights of Peru, like Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, and Lake Titicaca. I was partially inspired by Scott Grimmer of Milevalue, on his Peru trip reports, who says that Peru is his favorite country in the world. He’s got a great top 10, of which we were able to do most of them. He recommends not going with a tour guide, just doing the trip independently, and staying mostly in hostels. While I mostly agree with him, I had several things going against it for me – I had strictly only 7 days, my Espanol is not nearly as adept as his, and I was going with my wife, who, while adventurous, also prefers the finer things in life. Also, I’ve been swamped at work, and just wanted something cobbled together seamlessly.

 

I decided to book a tour through Latindestinations called Highlands of Peru. They subcontracted through Solar Tours, who then subcontracted to the eventual tour guides, Condor Travel. I cannot say this enough, Condor Travel were AMAZING tour guides! Everything was seamless, on-time, informative, and they all have great attitudes (and are fluent in English as well). I was very hesitant about using a tour guide, because we had a less than great experience with one in Argentina, but I cannot say enough good about Condor. It can be quite intimidating when you fly into a major airport like Lima and there are hundreds of taxi drivers vying for your attention, but they were there with a huge sign and my name on it, to whisk us to our hotel.

 

Anyway, back to the beginning – we were to leave on the 10th at 9am, so decided to stay at the Best Western Dulles – I had a 25% coupon for Travelocity, so the room with an advanced rate was slightly less than $70. It is a great hotel for staging, with fast wifi, lots of outlets in the room, bottled water, a decent breakfast buffet, coffee in the lobby always, shuttles to the airport every 30 minutes, and long-term parking, all of which are included in the price.

 

I booked our award flight through United, transferring Ultimate Rewards points, then assembling my itinerary. Our first flight was on Copa to PTY, then on to LIM, a 737-700, with wide, recliner seats. Although the plane is not glamorous, the crew was polite and attentive and the food was decent. BTW, I’m not a rum fan, but they have Flor de Cana 18 anos rum which is delicious, even before noon!

 

We found the TSA precheck lane at IAD was open that morning, so had to slog through normal security and didn’t have time to hang in a lounge, but no big deal. Lounges are not super important to me, but if you have a business class ticket departing, you can get in for free to that respective airline’s lounge, or sometimes a partner lounge. I also had a Priority Pass Select, courtesy of having the Amex Platinum card, so could get in to many independent lounges as well.

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This was just the appetizer, a surprisingly delicious carrot soup

 

We had a 2 hour layover in PTY, so decided to check out the Copa Club. There is a great review of the Copa Club here, but it’s a nice but basic airport lounge. Incidentally, if you are into shopping, PTY has some really high-end stuff, rivalling any other airport shopping I’ve seen.

 

The flight PTY – LIM was on the same airplane type, and was uneventful. Immigration and customs were uneventful, and we didn’t check any bags, only carryons the whole trip (which I highly recommend!). When you leave customs, you come upon hundreds of taxi drivers screaming your name, so brace yourself. Fortunately, our guide Karina was there to whisk us from the airport to The Allpa hotel in Lima, which, while I won’t go into great detail, is in the middle of Miraflores, probably the hippest and most tourist-friendly area of Lima, and is very well-appointed, clean, nicely air-conditioned, and with helpful and friendly desk-staff. The included breakfast buffet was only OK, but this was a commonly recurring theme in S America. While breakfast is my favorite meal and I prefer a hearty one, with lots of protein and fat, you really have to pay for it most of the time.

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We went to a local bar for some cervezas, but didn’t stay out too late. The next day we had a city tour scheduled for the afternoon, so walked around Miraflores in the morning.

 

If I have one piece of advice: WEAR SUNBLOCK! It is right near the equator, and especially at the higher altitude cities like Cusco and Puno, you will get burnt – I don’t care how dark you are! I didn’t follow my own advice, and paid for it.

 

If you’re only going to do one thing in Lima, walk along the Pacific cliffs, they’re gorgeous, especially at sunset! There are parks all along, and all sorts of people, running, walking, biking, taking their dog, etc. They even have workout equipment along the way. You can look down and see gobs of people surfing and bodyboarding, and they even have parasailing over the cliffs, on sufficiently windy days (for $45-60 for 10-15 minutes).

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My better half checking out the surfers below

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El Parque del Amor with a paraglider in the background!

 

I’m a food-lover, and Lima is a food-lover’s city! I could write a whole article on just the ceviche alone! The seafood here is to die for, as are the other local delicacies, like Causas, which are meat sandwiched between two slabs of potatoes (Peru has something like 5000 types of potatoes!) Also, their local drink, the Pisco Sour, is delicious – it is made from pisco, which is a type of grape brandy, egg white, and lime (although I’m simplifying it). I of course had to try many different versions to find the right one! We were only in Lima for a little over 24 hours, which actually was enough time for a brief overview – my recommendation is to try a restaurant in Miraflores called Al Fresco. The ceviche, the causas, and the Pisco Sours were to die for, the price was reasonable, you don’t need an advance reservation, and the waitstaff was charming.

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World’s best ceviche and Pisco Sour, at Al Fresco

 

The city tour was ok, but it wasn’t as interesting as say, Milan, but it was still pretty cool if only that there are pyramids and mummies (remember, Lima is in a desert) that are over 2000 years old! We went to the main square, the main cathedral, and a monastery dedicated to Santa Rosa. My favorite thing though was the Huaca Huallamarca, where they had a mummy that predates Christ! We learned that most of the pre-Incan pyramids and buildings were demolished by developers for modern structures, which is really sad. The tour was concluded at Parque del Amor, then back to our hotel for a couple more pisco sours and an early flight to Cusco the next day.

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Look at that preserved head of hair!

 

Upon arriving in Cusco, it was immediately apparent, even upon ascending a small flight of stairs, how high the altitude is – you get short of breath very quickly! We went to our hotel, the Maytaq Wasin Boutique Hotel, which is very nice; however, the day before we arrived, the mayor had closed down the main road for construction, so all traffic was diverted right past our window. I’d recommend asking for a room in the back, which we did, and slept much better.

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the bar at Maytaq, awaiting my pisco sour. it is much easier to get drunk at altitude!

 

Later that day we went on a tour where we visited Sacsayhuaman fortress (pronounced Sexy Woman!), a remarkable Incan military fort, some other amazing Incan structures, and then the Koricancha, where the Incans worshipped the sun god and the Pachamama, or mother earth.

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apparently the alpacas were not for sale!

 

That night we got an Incan massage, which I highly recommend, for around 30 Peruvian Soles (roughly $10) then ate at Limo, which is a Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant. Gayle got sushi, which was good, and I probably got ceviche and pisco sours…I can’t really remember :) The next day we got up early, and hungover, to go to the Sacred Valley…in my next installment!

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

I have written a fair amount about Veterans Advantage over the last couple of years.  It is a good deal for me and I have provided my analysis of whether it is a good deal for you.  I had another conference call will the Veterans’ Advantage CEO, Scott Higgins, and their VP of marketing, Roy Asfar.  The reason for our latest get together was the result of a nicely worded complaint from reader Dan L. who was having trouble applying the Vet Adv 5% discount to Lufthansa flights.  I conducted my own test and verified the problem, then turned it over to Roy.  Roy contacted Lufthansa and found that they had changed their computer system which broke the link.  He let Dan know and made him a happy customer.  The lesson from all this is that your feedback was what discovered this problem.  I encourage you to let us know on the blog or contact Veterans Advantage Customer Service at their Portland, Oregon (not India) Call Center (866-VET-ASSIST). 

We had the chance to review the program and some of the new benefits of Veterans Advantage.  They previously had introduce a 20% discount for CVS products on-line.  Now that has extended to in-store! 

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Veterans Advantage members can save 20% everyday on their CVS purchases across the entire store, on all their purchase of regularly priced merchandise. Members simply present their 20% OFF CVS coupon at the store register.  If you’re a member go here for the coupon to bring to the store.

My wife is always shopping for our stuff at CVS and I stop in their often to reload my Bluebird card so we really like the discount.  CVS sent us a statement that we had saved nearly $400 over the last year, with discounts and coupons.  The reason this is really big is that it changes the calculus for getting a Veterans Advantage Card.  Previously, I had calculated how much you would need to buy in United tickets for the payback.  Just with the CVS discount, you earn back the membership cost of $59.95 by buying $300 in CVS stores.   And then you get the discounts on United, Lufthansa, rental cars, etc.  Pretty good deal, and before anyone says something, no I don’t get any compensation from Veterans Advantage.

I also should mention the 20% discount the card will get you at Wyndham Hotels.  I have not tried this one myself, but would be very interested to hear from readers who have as a 20% discount is pretty good.

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

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