Thursday, January 13, 2022

Travel Hacking with Credit Cards (SoCal Food Allergy)

Our son has been in SoCal Food Allergy Institute program in Long Beach since April of 2019. How do we travel to Long Beach from Texas up to 7 times a year and keep our cost minimal? Travel hacking with credit cards has been a life saver for us. Check out below to see how we utilize each card. Also, look for my other upcoming blogs about travel hacking with Priceline and other helpful tips.

The signup bonuses (SUB) are what makes most credit cards worth getting. These offers go up and down throughout the year, so it is always good to check out how the offer compares before applying. This goes for any of the travel credit card. One of the hardest parts of earning a SUB is the required spend amount, but that is where it is easy for SoCal patients. The program fee or a lab visit will knock out most credit card minimum spend requirements. You might as well be earning money toward air travel, hotels, or even rental cars with each of those major spends.

SOUTHWEST Airlines Rapid Rewards CC
We started with the Southwest cards in 2017 when we had to replace our air conditioner. We signed up for our first card and got a 40k point bonus that we used to fly to Costa Rica on the cheap. The biggest perk of the Southwest SUB is that they help you earn towards getting a Companion Pass (CP), so essentially getting to take your kid (or whoever you designate) free on any flight. The only cost is the $5.60 per one way flight, or $11.20 roundtrip per person. That means if you pay for the flight with the points you get from the SUB and have a companion pass, that is 2 for the price of 1 tickets and $22.40 in fees. I have done roundtrip out of Denver to Long Beach (LGB) for 4500 points for me and my son and just the $22.40. When using that card for monthly expenses we were earning more than that each month in points. With that we were able to maintain our points and have been flying for "free" for the past few years. Amarillo is not the best market for Southwest flights, so we drive to Albuquerque and Denver to get direct flights to LA. Look at all different ways of getting there, and you may find cheaper routes as opposed to booking directly out and back.

The SW SUB range from 40k to 80k, depending on exactly which level card you get. You can only get 1 personal card, so to get to the companion pass you will normally need to get a business card as well. It seems daunting, but there are plenty of examples of how to get these with even the tiniest business (like $500 income level). To get my business card I had to sign for an EIN with the IRS for my photography business, but was approved quickly after I got that. Currently with SW, the threshold for the CP is 125k points. That makes the CP pretty hard to earn with a single card, but it can be done. Hotel stays and rental cars can help earn bonus points that add in as well. Avis, Alamo, Budget,  and Hertz are all partners with SW, which will get you a 600 point bonus with each rental if you put in your SW Rapid Reward (RR) number at booking.

You can earn a new SUB every 2 years to help replenish the points stash in your account as well. The card just needs to be paid off and the card be closed before applying for the SW card again. Between my wife and I, we have earned 4 companion passes since 2017. We have also got a number of referral bonuses from referring friends to get the cards as well, which have a 10k to 20k bonus. 

The cards have a number of benefits that you just have to weigh against the cost of the card. Annual fees range from $69 to $149 on the personal and $199 on the business, but my favorite are the most expense ones due to the benefits included. The business card is the only gives you free internet on flights, which is my favorite to have because of that. The included travel credits and annual bonus points really help even out the cost of the high priced cards.


Some may not have Southwest as an option, but it is our go to due the ability to earn companion passes. Research other airline cards if Southwest doesn't work for you as they all offer some type of card. Be sure to read the section about the CSP card below, as it is the ultimate all-around travel reward card. Rewards on the CSP can be used across airlines, hotels, and even car rentals.

Hotel Cards & Travel Cards

After reducing your you flight cost, you may start to try and reduce other major costs like the hotels. That is what we did and signed up for a number of cards, that included Marriott and IHG as we use those hotel brands the most.

Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP) - I want to mention this card first before the hotel branded cards. I didn't learn about the Chase Sapphire Preferred until after I got the other cards, but when it comes to earning and rewards it is the top tier. The benefits of the card when booking are some the the best too. Car rental protection and travel interruption coverage are some of my favorite features of it. This card bonus is one of the best, even when it is not at it highest SUB. At a 60k SUB, that is worth $750 worth of travel through the Chase Portal. When they bump that offer to 100k, that is $1250 in travel. You can book airlines, hotel, and even rental cars through the portal. The portal can be used to book without the credits as well, and spending with the card gets you 5x bonus on any travel booked. The Reserve card will get you a 10x bonus, but it's annual fee is a bit high for my taste. If you are considering a travel credit card, this would be my first choice behind the Southwest card.


Marriott Bonvoy -
 If Marriot brand is your hotel of choice then this is an a must. SUB is generally 3 to 5 nights worth of rewards and the card gives you automatic Silver Elite status that can be used to request late checkout and other awesome features. On top of annual free night reward, you can also earn 10x points on stays to earn toward more free stays. The hotel cards with the annual fees are always worth it for the benefits provided with the fee. It is only $95 a year on this card.


IHG Premier
- Once we started staying at Staybridge Suites, this card became an automatic must so we could earn 25x on each stay. Perks of this card are great too. The SUB is worth 5-7 nights depending on the hotel cost. Also includes the free annual night & Platinum Elite status, which can get you complimentary room upgrades and extended check out. For an $89 annual fee this card is also a must in my book.



Other cards and useful information
If these cards don't match your needs or are not the brands you use, shop around and find one that works for you. At minimum you are missing out on free travel when you pay the program or lab fees by not putting these on a rewards card. Even if you don't need to use the rewards on trips to LA, they can be use towards vacations at other times. As with any credit card though, be sure to keep the balances paid or the benefits can out weighed fairly quickly. All the cards above are under Chase and are subject to the 5/24 rule. 5/24 means you can not open 5 or more Chase cards in less than 24 month period. As you jump into travel hacking just be sure to pace yourself and stay aware of your 5/24 status. Being listed as an Authorized User on a card will count against your 5/24 status as well.

If you found this information useful, please use the above referral links to help us afford the getting our son through the SoCal Food Allergy program. If you have any questions, reach out on here, Facebook, or even Twitter, I will be happy to help.




Monday, September 28, 2020

Reolink Go PT Review

Do you get sunlight? Do you have a cell signal? Then you can have live remote video feed from a camera that can pan and tilt 360 degrees. Not to mention the other features common with Reolink cameras like of motion recording and good night vision video. This is the Reolink Go PT.

All my previous Reolink experience has been with some of their PoE (power over ethernet) security cameras, which have been a great addition to my house. I caught my neighbor's A/C unit being stolen the first month I had them up and a number of other alley prowlers. I have used the Reolink app on my phone and computer extensively over the last 6 months since getting those cameras. I had never used any of the cameras powered by solar or with the pan and tilt capabilities until now though.

Our family has a 200 acre farm in the Texas Panhandle, which none of us live at. The closest family member is 20 minutes away and the furthest is about 10 hours. While there is a non family member living there, we all wanted a way to check in on the farm and to record anyone who might drive up to the house. The house is over half a mile from the paved highway on a hilltop. This camera gave us the capability to easily do just that.


Unboxing

The camera and solar panel come together in the same box with accessories you need to get it mounted. The solar panel comes with a sturdy 3 screw mount, which can be angled any way need to catch sunlight. The cable attached to the solar panel has pretty good length (4 meters or 12 feet), so if you need to mount 5 feet away it would not be an issue. There are also extension cables available on the Reolink site. I mounted mine about 6 inches away from the camera. The screws are included in the kit. 

Under the solar panel is the camera and its mounting hardware. Along with the mounting bracket is a strap, if you wanted to mount the camera to a tree. One thing you will notice immediately is how sturdy the camera feels and how well it is sealed up for weather.

Reolink Go PT





Unboxing


Install

I mounted my camera with the solar panel up on a pole about 9 feet off the ground. I screwed both brackets into place and then proceeded to mount the solar panel and camera. Before putting the camera up though, I took my verizon sim card and placed it in the camera. My nano-sim card came from my Verizon Jetpack, which only cost $10 a month when added to certain Verizon Unlimited plans. It gives you 15gb of 4g data, which is more than enough with this camera. With just occasional live viewing and downloading videos, it is more than enough data. The nano-sim card has to be pushed pretty far in to click into to place, so you will need a point object to aid getting it in there.

Nano-sim card and camera


After getting the sim card in, you will need to power up the camera to sync it to your Reolink app. You will have to setup a password for the camera and you will be done (assuming you are a previous Reolink user with an account already set up). After completing the app setup, all you need is to attach the solar panel cable  and slide the weather seal protector into place after mounting the camera. Camera is ready to use at that point.

Mounted camera



Using the camera

First thing I noticed was how quickly the camera responded to the pan command from my phone. While the video has a small delay, the camera starts to pan once you move it on your phone. The video delay is only about half a second when using the app on my computer The pan speed is good and quick, but not too fast that it blurs out completely. It is your the right speed. Having dealt with the slow pan speeds of IP cameras that I used in the past, this was nice to see it doesn't take 30 seconds to turn 360 degrees. I timed it at 15 seconds for a full 360 degree spin.

 


                                          


Second thing I notice was the great video quality and sound. You feel like you are right there when watch the live feed. Where I mounted my camera I had 4 bars of 4G verizon service, so it handles the live feed great. It is always windy here in the TX Panhandle and having the camera out in the open was something I worried about. While you can hear the wind through the video on windy days, it is really not bad. It picks up audio really well. With where I have the camera the 2 way audio is not something I will use, but the siren could come in handy at some point. Both the videos below were captured with the motion detection.






The only issue I have had so far is a codec issue with the video when I go to edit in CyberLink Video editing program. The video files play fine, it just wont let me edit them at the moment. I am sure it is something I can solve eventually. 

If you need a remote camera that can pan and tilt and will be in an area with cell service, this is a camera worth your consideration. For more information on the Go PT or to buy your own, head on over to the Reolink website. Retail cost is $289.99.

If you have any questions about the Reolink Go PT, just let me know in the comments.




Thursday, October 11, 2018

Costa Rica Trip Review - Playa Ocotal (Food, Photography, Drone Flying, Driving, etc...)

COSTA RICA

We took a 4 night adventure to Costa Rica to experience their food, culture, and incredible sights. Travel time was at the end of February and the beginning of March of 2018. Here is some insight that might be helpful for those considering a Costa Rica trip, especially to the Guanacaste region (Playa Coco, or more specifically Playa Ocotal). We had originally planned a resort stay, but when we had to push our travel period back a few months I change to an entirely different type of trip altogether. One of not just relaxation, but of experience and something totally different. Just for an idea on what kind of travelers we are, here are some of the trips we have taken mostly out of Amarillo. This does not included any of my storm chasing adventures that have gone all the way to ND and MN. Since having our 2 kids our trips are generally limited to OKC, Dallas, ABQ, and Denver. Last summer we took the kids to South and North Carolina, but that was the first airline flight for us as we normally drive everywhere. Before the kids we would drive to Houston or Phoenix without hesitation, though we wouldn't push much past that. Our only trip out of the Country before this was Jamaica in 2010, which we stayed on a secluded resort and only did a couple guided off resort tours. This trip was nothing like those.

We did tons of research on everything we might encounter on are trip, from renting a vehicle and driving to food and activities. It paid off on being prepared as much as we could for everything that came up. Hopefully some avoid a few of the things we stumbled across while there.







Flights to Costa Rica

We did tons of research on everything we might encounter on are trip, from renting a vehicle and driving to food and activities. Budget was a bit limited, but since we paid for our flights using Southwest points on their Rapid Rewards programs it gave us money to spend elsewhere. We earned a companion pass by using the Southwest cards when we bought a new A/C for the house, so we had plenty of points to spend. Just had to cover the the international fees. There were no flight options out of Amarillo to Liberia, so we looked at Dallas Love and OKC. We eventually chose OKC for a number of reasons.We drove to OKC the night before our flights, because they are 5:55am flight to Houston Hobby. Easy to get through the airports at times like that and the flight had plenty of empty seats. The flight from Houston to Liberia was a full ride though and plenty of drinking was going on by all of those around us. Not too annoying. Nothing a good book or music cant distract you from if that is not your thing. It was like everyone on our flight knew each other but us. Kinda strange in a way. We ended up flying home from Liberia to Houston with about 80% of the same people. Get those early boarding spots with Southwest so you can sit together. We were in the A 35 thru 50 area for all of our flights.

The flight over the Gulf was super smooth. Was a nice change after bouncing on the OKC to Houston flight. Probably had a lot to do with a storm system moving into the Plains and strong winds aloft. Even flying over Mexico and Central America was pretty smooth. If you are lucky, like we were, you may get an incredible view of volcanoes if you sit on the west-facing or right side of the plane (seats to the left when walking on the plane). You get a great view of Volcano Momotombo in Nicaragua if the sit on the west-facing side, if the skies are clear. Even had a steam cloud at it's top when we passed. Landing was easy and we even arrived early,  Liberia airport is under a major upgrade process and they are short on gates. We sat waiting for a gate to open for at least 20 minutes. 





Immigration & Airport

Immigration was a fun experience. Pretty long line but at least it moved a a good rate and it helps you will have the paper work done on the plane before you even land. Southwest went through and handed it out about 1 hour before landing. Heard horror stories of people landing their late at night and taking hours to get through. First question the immigration agent asked us was if we spoke Spanish. That made me worry that it would be difficult for our entire trip, but it was because we didn't really mark where we were staying. We were staying at a house, but no where has addresses there so we couldn't really put anything. He ended up just writing "house" down. After that we were on our way to grab our bags and to ran our bags through Customs scanners. That agent was probably the only person we met in the country who didnt know at least some English.

When you clear all of that and are released into the airport. Be ready to be "helped" by plenty of guys in official looking uniforms. They are supposedly working there entirely by tips (what one of them told us). We had rented with Dollar and I saw the guy holding a Dollar sign outside right as we got helped by one guy. Just bypass these guys and roll your own bags the few feet further and find your car rental or shuttle group waiting outside. They literally roll your bags a couple feet and ask for money. Just walk on by them and find your shuttle outside. It was pointless. It was not a long wait for the shuttle to Dollar, but their airport is very short on space out front.

Car rental and Driving

I rented with Dollar for a number of reason. Specifically it was the reviews I read online about them on how they handle the insurance in Costa Rica and the experiences people had with them. There is a mandatory insurance that is required by the government and their website does a good job of being able to easily book with that insurance so you know what you are getting. I ended up paying about only about $7 more than my original booking. That was probably just do to currency conversions. They did try to upsell there top insurance, but I only had to say no twice. We went with the Suzuki Vitara 4x4. I had originally booked a Jimny 4x4, but didnt want to drive a standard there (though I love driving standards normally). I ended up using manual mode on our automatic all the time, but mostly just to get up the hill to our house. If you plan to travel around much, I definitely recommend a SUV. It is easier to see and drive, but also with the road conditions there it comes in handy often.

The very main highways are nice, but there are not many of them. They are stripped and and have plenty of well marked signs. Problem is, no one else driving even slightly follows the speed limit and pays any regards to strips on the road or if they are on a blind corner. After the form you sign at the car rental talking about $500, the last thing you feel like doing is speeding. It is easy to do if you dont watch it, since everyone else is. Only saw 1 police car (truck) the entire time there. Other 2 were foot patrols. Saw 6 security guards are Wal-Mart that looked more like Police and the Police did.


When you get off the main highways it is a literal free for all. Just expect the worse and you will be ready for. Very narrow roads with trees, walls, and fencing right next to the road. Massive potholes are everywhere. Playa Coco and Ocotal are no exception. Some of the worst drivers on the roads are the vans and huge buses driving other tourist around. You expect the bad driving from the random locals, but it is the tourist bus drivers that surprise you.

What makes driving really dangerous in Costa Rica inst really the other drivers though. It is the constant pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles. This was more of an issue on the local side streets near towns than on the highways. Motorcycles are dangerous just because you never know when they are going to come flying by you out of no where. The pedestrians and bicyclist will drive you crazy though. At times you will think they are trying to get you to hit them. There are lots of cases where there are sidewalks or a shoulder to walk on, but everyone walks on the pavement. Around dusk is the worst. Driving is downright frustrating then and really dangerous. Early mornings around 8 are quite nice as there are not many out on the roads yet.



Accommodations

There are a wide array of options for staying in Costa Rica, but it really depends what you plan to do. I had originally booked a resort and probably would have only gone off the resort once. After a change in our travel date and I did a little more research, I found there were some very reasonably price house rentals. If you are traveling as a bigger group it could be decent savings even. We also leaned toward a house, so we could eat more local and really experience Costa Rica. It turned out to be a great decision.

We rented the "Lighthouse Ocotal" near Playa Ocotal that I found by just looking at Google Maps and scan up and down the coast. It is a good sized 3 bedroom house with a separate apartment that is a "lighthouse". There are 4 total bedrooms (with 5 beds) and 3 bathrooms, and a large couch big enough for at least 1 to sleep on if needed.  The beds were really comfortable and I am really picky about beds when I travel. We slept great. We did get woke up every morning from nearby construction and really loud birds. We ended up moving from the master bedroom to one away from the trees so we could sleep past 6am. Getting up at 6 has it's perks too though. The bird watching was incredible, especially with the infinity pool. The patio had constant visitors in the morning and the weather was perfect for us.
















What makes this house is the patio. The house is perched halfway up the hillside (over 50ft above sea level) with an incredible view to the NW looking over Playa Ocotal and out over the Pacific. It is a large patio area with lounger chairs near the infinity pool that you will never want to leave. Also a hammock is hanging out there, which I passed out on one night listening to the ocean while my camera was taking pictures. This patio make the house worth every penny.



The house has a nice kitchen for any cooking you might want to do. A pineapple was cut up and waiting for us with a bottle of rum when we arrived.


This house also made being able to fly my drone super easy. The big patio and clear view made taking off and landing super easy. Also it was separated more than other locations so I wasnt bothering anyone with my flights. Also well within distance of being able to fly out over the ocean.

The house was located up a pretty steep, but at least a solid concrete hill. You will need to put it in low gear to make it up easy. The house lies behind 2 security gates and the neighboring hillside is so steep, the gates are all that is needed. Max, who we rented the house from is at the first house by the gate, so if you need anything he was literally just down the hill.



Our last night there, a Saturday, gave us a very special surprise. At 10pm while we were packing up for a return home the next day, the explosion began. We thought the house was being bombed. It was that loud. A firework display was being launched from the beach below offering us an incredible view. The land acted like and amphitheater making the explosions even louder. Best firework display I have ever seen because of out vantage point. Lucky for me my camera was taking pictures when it started. I busted out the video camera and caught the rest of the performance.
























































Firework video from Lighthouse Ocotal -

Driving up the hill to Lighthouse Ocotal-


Eating

Many places, food and retail took both dollars and colones. We took about $250 colones with us and it worked out well. Probably could have got by with about $150 colones, but for 5 days in the country is was more than enough with having dollars and a credit card.

The food of Costa Rica is what makes staying off a resort and seeing the country really worth it. Most of it is priced about the same as food in the US, unless going somewhere "fancy" or on the beach. Just do plenty of research about where you are going to go, because there are some "crap" places. We were in a hurry one night and after our first place was already closed, we just picked a random place on the corner called Jimmy's Burger. I ordered a taco, which was a deep fried taquito covered in cabbage. That was one 1 mistake. All the other meals where amazing, especially Le Coq and Chorotacos, both in Playa Ocotal. I would have been perfectly happy just to have had those 2 restaurants over and over. Still want them, everyday actually.

























If you want to get real adventurous, there is still a Subway and a Papa John's in Playa Coco. If you head into Liberia, there is a McDonalds, Taco Bell, and a few others not far from the Walmart. The Walmart was super interesting, just from the standpoint of how much security they have there behind their barbwire fence. You can find Dr Pepper there though, just for reference for you other Texans out there that need their Dr Pepper. It was on an endcap and sold by the can. About $.60 a can.

I want to go back to Costa Rica desperately and I would stay in the same region just so could go back to those same restaurants. They were that good.





















Beach time & Volcanoes

I really wish out vacation had been more like a full week, just so we could have had more beach time. While the black beaches get real hot, there was plenty of shade back up from the water if you stay down there for a large part of the day. I had a blast trying to snorkel around some coves off of Playa Ocotal and saw a number of fish. The water was just the right temp in the low 80's. I could have spent all day down there. The crowds were minimal which made it even better. If you are willing to hike a little you can get beaches all to yourself. After spending time at beaches in the US, it will make you love the peacefulness these beaches bring. It is true serenity.









The other part of our trip that we didnt spend at the house was hiking on a volcano. I ended up at the wrong entrance, but the hike was still awesome to the hot springs. Not a lot of people around so it was a peaceful hike through the jungle with a couple stops at some waterfalls along the way. You have to visit at least 1 volcano when you go. I would love to go back and see more of them.








Drone Flying in Costa Rica

I only ended up flying from our rental house and around the nearby beaches from there.Any of the volcanoes are off limits so I didnt even risk that. My biggest concern was just getting my drone into the country. Due to wanting to keep all my other camera equipment with me in my backpack, I was forced to put my DJI Phantom 3 in my suitcase. Not my first choice but it worked out fine. I have a hard shell backpack case which I put in my suitcase with my tripod and then padded it up what I could with a pillow. I kept all the batteries for the drone, in the special battery bags, with me in my backpack (carry on). I didnt have any trouble leaving on either flight (going to or coming from).

Before I went to Costa Rica I did register my drone with them and I put my registration number on my drone with my US number. I have left the number on there in hopes it will be ready to go "when" I get to go back to Costa Rica.





Drone Video -
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGPu4s1uqPI



Conclusion

Hopefully this can help you on your trip. If you have any questions, dont hesitate to ask. Feel free to contact me here, Facebook, or Twitter.