How to Get French Laundry Reservations Without Losing Your Mind

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Businessweek has a profile of the latest exclusive, farm-to-table, 16-course-meal restaurant, including a list of the “five toughest restaurant reservations in America”.

I found myself smiling because I recently ate at one of the places on that list – The French Laundry in Yountville, California – with just one phone call. How did I get a reservation? By wringing yet another benefit out of credit cards, of course!

The reservation process for The French Laundry is relatively egalitarian. Reservations are only accepted exactly two months ahead either via phone call or OpenTable.com exactly at 10:00am. No walk-ins allowed. I tried for days with repeated phone calls and frantic clicking, all with no luck.

Then I discovered that some people were able to get reservations using their American Express “Black” card, a card for big spenders willing to pay a $5,000 initiation fee and a $2,500 annual fee. I have a lot of credit cards, but this isn’t one of them.

However, others mentioned using the Concierge feature of Visa Signature cards. Look for the Visa Signature logo on that back of your existing cards. Here are some popular credit cards that are a Visa Signature, many with nice sign-up bonuses and no annual fee:

So I called the special Visa Concierge number (800-953-7392) and asked for help making a reservation for two. The next day, they called back and said that they couldn’t get me a reservation, but that they would keep trying and get back to me when they did. It took a little over a month, but one day I got a message that they had secured me a reservation on a Monday about 6 weeks ahead and for me to confirm that I wanted it. I surprised my wife with the news, and we decided to go for it as a special anniversary celebration.

I’ve read that certain high-demand restaurants have an arrangement with certain credit card companies to set aside a certain amount of seats for their “concierge” services. I imagine most people never use them. I don’t know if someone from Visa Signature really tried to call in every single day, if they have some sort of automated system for snapping up cancellations, or perhaps there is some sort of lottery. All I know is that it worked for me, and it should work for you if you’re flexible on dates.

As for the meal, the food and service were excellent, and we don’t regret splurging for such a memorable eating experience and Napa Valley trip. We even framed the menu and put it in our kitchen. At the same time, we have no plans to spend $600 on dinner again anytime soon. :)

Chase Freedom: $100 Sign-Up Bonus + 2014 5% Cash Back Categories

Chase Freedom Card

Chase Freedom CardThe Chase Freedom® - $100 Bonus is a popular rewards card with no annual fee, as it offers a $100 Bonus after you make $500 in purchases in your first 3 months from account opening, an additional $25 Bonus after you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within this same 3-month period and a 5% cash back on rotating categories like gas stations, restaurants, and Amazon.com. It’s free and easy to activate your bonus each quarter! The categories usually include at least one big-spending area, and seem to go with the seasons (home improvement for spring, gas and travel for the summer). For 2014, you can get 5% back on gas for half the year (see below).

Current and 2014 5% Cash Back Categories

From January through March 2014 (activate starting 12/15/13):

  • Gas Stations
  • Movie Theaters
  • Starbucks stores

From April through June 2014 (activate starting 3/15/14):

  • Restaurants
  • Lowe’s home improvement stores

From July through September 2014 (activate starting 6/15/14):

  • Gas Stations
  • Kohl’s®

[Read more...]

Costco.com $15 off $115: American Express Offers

If you have an American Express card, log into your account online and scroll down until you see the “Offers For You” tab. Many (but not all) will find a Costco.com offer where you if you spend $115 on your linked AmEx, you’ll get $10 back. (Looks similar to this). If you’d rather spend money in-store, you can buy a $100 Costco Cash card and a $25 Costco Cash card and you will get the $10 back. I just did it and it worked for me.

Get a one-time $15 statement credit by using your enrolled Card to spend a total of $115 or more online at Costco.com by 12/31/2013.

Also look at the other offers, there are some good ones right now including AMC Theaters, Best Buy, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Kohl’s, Land’s End, and more. (The recent Amazon offer appears to be expired.)

You can also try to access this offer via Facebook. You can also use the Twitter hashtag #AmexCostco if you’re synced up. I was waiting to see if this offer would go wider, but it appears to be limited to those targeted.

Discover it Card: $150 Bonus, 0% Balance Transfers, New 5% Cash Back Categories

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Discover it 14 Month BT (RED)UPDATE – The Discover it Card $150 Cash Back Bonus is now EXPIRED

Discover only has one card these days, called the Discover it card. However, there are a few different promotions for new customers going on (including a new $150 bonus offer) each with a different application link – so please click and read carefully. The best offer depends on how much you value 0% interest on purchases or balance transfers for an extended intro period.

$150 cash back when you make $750 in purchases during your 1st three months from account opening. Limited-time boost, the bonus is usually $100 or less. This offer is best for those that don’t need 0% interest on purchases or balance transfers.

Discover it® – 0% APR on balance transfers for 18 months

0% Intro APR* on balance transfers for 18 months. Then the variable purchase APR applies, currently 10.99% – 22.99%. A fee of 3% applies for each balance transferred. 0% Intro APR* on purchases for 6 months. Then the variable purchase APR applies, currently 10.99% – 22.99%.

Discover it® – 0% APR on both purchases and balance transfers for 14 months

0% Intro APR* on purchases and balance transfers for 14 months. Then the variable purchase APR applies, currently 10.99% – 22.99%. A fee of 3% applies for each balance transferred.

New 5% Cash Back bonus categories announced

From now until the end of March 2014, get a 5% Cashback Bonus on up to $1,500 in purchases at Gas Stations. 5% rewards start only after activation each quarter and are not retroactive, so sign up now by logging into your account online.

Common features of ALL Discover it cards:

  • 5% cash back on rotating categories (see above). 1% flat cashback on all other purchases with no tiers.
  • Free FICO® credit score, shown on every monthly statement.
  • Late payment forgiveness. There is no late fee for your first late payment, and your APR won’t automatically increase either. Pay online or by phone for free up to midnight Eastern on your due date.
  • 100% U.S.-based customer service.
  • No foreign transaction fee. Discover is actually one of the best cards for Asia, especially China and Japan. You can use your Discover anywhere you see a China Union Pay, JCB, or Diners Club International logo.
  • No annual fee. No overlimit fee.

Barclaycard Travel Community: Share Stories for Bonus Miles

arrival2xnewBarclaycard recently started a “Barclaycard Travel Community” at Barclaycardtravel.com. Although it’s obviously another “social media” attempt to promote their new Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard (actually a pretty good travel card with 2% rewards), you do earn “Participation Miles” for sharing your travel stories and tips:

  • Completing a profile will earn each Member 500 miles; a profile is considered complete when the following information is added: 1) the City and State in which the member lives 2) At least one travel interest is selected 3) at least one travel companion is selected 4) at least 1 travel style is selected 5) at least 5 cities are added to the “My travels” map
  • Members earn 200 miles for each travel story that is posted.
  • Every time the story that is authored by a member is kudoed by another member, the member will receive 10 miles.

The points earned directly transfer over the miles balance on your Arrival World card (500 = $5 travel credit, or non-cardmembers can get a $25 Amazon.com gift code each time they accumulate 2,500 miles).

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Chase Sapphire Preferred Card New Bonus: 40,000 Points = $500 In Travel, Plus 5,000 Points For Authorized User

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Chase has improved the bonus to 40,000 bonus points when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, plus 5,000 additional bonus points after you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first 3 months from account opening.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is a rewards credit card that has upped their sign-up bonus to new cardholders to 40,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months. This is quite a good deal, as 40,000 points can be redeemed for $500 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards™. You can buy a more expensive ticket and simply pay the difference. No annual fee for the first year, $95 in future years.

Rewards Program Summary

Points under the Chase Sapphire program are pretty flexible. There are also no earning caps or expiration dates

  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants. Earn 1 point for every dollar in other purchases (100 points = $1, or the usual 1% back).
  • Simple cash rewards. Cash redemptions are easy – you can redeem in $1 increments as long as above $20, so you could cash out $27 or $253 without anything left over.
  • Points redeemed towards travel are worth 25% more, and easy to use. As noted above, hotel room or airplane ticket redemptions can also be maximized because you can book wherever you want and simply pay the difference. For example, 25,000 points can be used for any ticket up to $312.50, but if say you wanted a $325 ticket you could just pay the $12.50 difference. You’re able to use every last point on this program. On other cards, you would have to go up another tier and spend an extra 10,000 point chunk.
  • Transfer to airline miles. If you prefer, you can also transfer to United Airlines, British Airways, Hyatt Hotels, Marriott Hotels, and Amtrak. 1 Sapphire point = 1 mile/hotel point for these transfers. If you collect miles, this is really lucrative as I don’t know of any other card that gives 2 miles/dollar spent on travel and dining.

Ultimate Rewards points are instantly transferable to other accounts like family members, so you can pool points for trips and such.

More Details

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Charts: Credit Card Debt and Household Debt Trends

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Here is an interesting Quartz article by Matt Phillips outlining “the most important change in the US economy since the Great Recession that nobody is talking about”. I don’t know about that, I’ve seen a lot of these charts before. But many include more recent data, and below are a few of the notable ones. (Note the truncated scales on several of the vertical axes.)

The overall theme is that household debt levels appear to be settling at a more sustainable level. Household debt service payments as a percentage of disposable income are at their lowest levels in over 20 years:


(click to enlarge)

Breaking this down a bit, we see that total US credit card debt has been dropping pretty consistently since 2009 and remains lower than 2003 levels:

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Shoprunner Membership with American Express

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Update: American Express is now offering Shoprunner if you enroll at ShopRunner.com/AmericanExpress and agree to keep your AmEx card as the default payment method for their Express Checkout feature. You can still choose to use another credit card for any specific purchase. I didn’t see this as a big deal as in May 2013 they already offered a year-long subscription for free, and who knows how long Shoprunner itself or this AmEx partnership will last.

Shoprunner is similar to Amazon Prime in that it offers unlimited free 2-day shipping with no minimum order amount from a variety of online merchants including Newegg, Babies R Us, Blue Nile, Sports Authority, Drugstore.com, and GNC. It also allows you free return shipping and the ability to ship to any address, making it handy for gifts. You can also get free delivery from Domino’s pizza.

You’ll need a consumer or business American Express card issued by an AmEx-affiliated bank (Starwood Preferred yes, Blue Cash Preferred yes, Business Gold yes, Costco yes, FIA/Fidelity no, Citibank no, prepaid versions no).

I’ve used my membership a few times to send gifts from Babies R Us, although I wouldn’t pay $79 a year for it.

New Citi ThankYou Premier Card Review

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The Citi ThankYou® Premier Card has re-launched with a new sign-up bonus and purchase rewards structure. Get 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points as follows:

  • Earn 20,000 bonus points after you make $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
  • Earn an additional 30,000 ThankYou points after you make another $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of your second year of being a cardmember.
  • First year annual fee waived, $125 after that.

50,000 ThankYou points is enough to redeem for $500 in gift cards or $625 in airfare when you redeem through their ThankYou Travel Center (25% travel bonus only works if you have the Premier card). Details below. You can also redeem 50,000 TY points for a $500 check towards your student loans and/or mortgage.

The new rewards structure lets you earn:

  • 3 ThankYou Points for every $1 spent on purchases for dining at restaurants and entertainment.
  • 2 ThankYou Points for every $1 spent on purchases for airfare and hotels.
  • 1 ThankYou Point per $1 spent on other purchases.

$625 in Airfare (ThankYou Travel Center)

With the new Citi Premier card, you get a 20% discount on the standard travel redemption that a “regular” Citi card offers. The reverse math means 1 TY point = 1.25 cents towards travel. For example, with my non-Premier card, I found that a flight that cost $360 including taxes and fees on Expedia would cost 36,000 TY points from Citi Travel. But with the Citi Premier, it would only cost 28,800 TY points.

ThankYou Travel Center screenshot:

Expedia.com screenshot:

So 50,000 TY points will get you $625 in airfare. The Citi Travel pricing seems fair, with no inflated prices as compared to Expedia, Orbitz, etc. Since you can book any flight that can be found on Expedia, there are “no blackout dates”.

[Read more...]

Quick Reference: Membership Rewards vs. Starwood Points vs. Chase Ultimate Rewards

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Due to birth of our first child, we haven’t been traveling much the last 24 months. However, I’ve still been racking up the miles (via credit card bonuses, credit card rewards, dining rewards, and shopping portals) and have built up a sizable pile with the three major “superpoints” programs – those that allow transfers to a variety of air and hotel partners. Everyone has their own preferred programs and unique travel needs, but here is a quick reference guide to simplify things. My favorite transfer partners are bolded, but all of the other options are also included. These days I’ll probably just be topping off an account off to qualify for an award ticket or free hotel night. Ratios are 1:1 unless otherwise noted.

Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) Points

  • United Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Hyatt
  • Korean Air
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Marriott
  • Ritz-Carlton
  • IHG Rewards Club
  • Amtrak

Credit card bonuses and rewards are the fastest way to jumpstart your miles balance. Here are related offers:

American Express Membership Rewards (MR) Points

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Money Magazine – Best Credit Cards List 2013

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The October 2013 issue of Money Magazine featured an article “Best Credit Cards” that (unsurprisingly) caught my eye. Here’s a quick list of their top picks for various categories. I’ve written about most of them, and in those cases I’m linking to that post which provides more details. Otherwise, I’m linking directly to the card page and including a few highlights about the card.

Best for Balance Transfers (Low, long introductory APR)

  • Chase Slate Card. 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months. No balance transfer fee if you transfer within the first 2 months.

Best for Regular Balance Carriers (Low ongoing APR)

Best for Purchases (Low, long introductory APR)

  • Citi Simplicity Card. 0% on purchases and balance transfers for 18 months. 3% balance transfer fee, $5 min.

Best Tiered Rewards Cards (Tie)

Best Flat and Simple Rewards Cards (Tie)

 

Best Travel Rewards Credit Card

Best Card for Using Overseas

[Read more...]

Chase Freedom 5% Rewards: 4th Quarter 2014 Activation

A quick reminder that you can now activate the 4th Quarter 2014 rewards for the Chase Freedom® - $100 Bonus. From October 1st to December 31st, 2014 you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 spent in the following categories:

  • Amazon.com
  • Zappos.com
  • Select Department Stores

You’ll enjoy new 5% categories every 3 months like gas stations, restaurants and Amazon.com. It’s free and easy to activate your bonus each quarter at ChaseBonus.com. You can also sign up for text or e-mail activation reminders. All other purchases earn 1% back, with no tiers or expiration of rewards. Keep in mind that you actually earn Ultimate Rewards points with the Chase Freedom card and they can be converted to miles like United and British Airways as well as converted to cash.

You will earn an additional 10% Bonus on all new points earned with your Chase Freedom card during billing cycles within the previous Year when you, as the primary cardmember, were the sole or joint owner of an open Chase checking account.

Currently, the Chase Freedom® card is offering new cardholders a $100 bonus if you sign up and make just $500 in purchases in your first three months and  a $25 Bonus after you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within this same 3-month period. No annual fee.

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