Favorite things, day 6: credit cards

Amex-Green-Cards

For the days leading up to Christmas, I’m counting down a few of my favorite things. These are not in priority order. The closest thing there is to an order is least surprising to most surprising.

There are many reasons I love credit cards. As a payments nerd, I marvel that I can be on the far side of the world, tap a card and walk away with things I want. As a marketing nerd, I love figuring out how credit card companies structure offers and guessing at CAC.

As a frequent traveler and a consumer, credit cards offer great benefits and conveniences. Rewards cards get me premium travel and beautiful hotels all over the world. They get me into lounges.

IMPORTANT: If you do not pay off your credit card every month, do not get a rewards card to charge on to. You will pay way more in interest every month than the benefits are worth. The reason American Express, Chase and Citi are willing to pay billions to the airlines is that many humans are economically irrational and way overpay for frequent flier miles that they then have to beg to use.

If that doesn’t describe you, or you have the discipline to separate credit card spend, then you can get a lot out of value from premium cards.

American Express green card

A surprise this year: AmEx’s re-introduction of the Green card, the one that started it all. This used to be a status symbol. Getting an AmEx Green card was a sign that you’ve arrived.

AmEx is bringing this card back with a vengeance. The new AmEx Green Card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Just go apply now. (referral link)

For a very reasonable $150 annual fee, there is a lot you get up front:

  • 35,000 Membership Rewards points. I value those at $612.50.
  • $100 per year toward Clear membership. This is the only card I know of that offers credit for Clear.
  • $150 in statement credits toward Away luggage. I’m not a fan of their luggage because I don’t like spinner wheels, but plenty of people do. I’ll probably get some accessories. If you use someone’s referral link, you get another $20. $170 towards some good – but not road warrior grade – luggage.

That’s more than $850 in value for $150, with a small $2,000 minimum spend.

The bonus categories are perfect for travelers: travel and restaurants. This is the vast majority of my spend.

You also get access to Lounge Buddy lounges. These are not the high end Centurion American Express lounges.

You also get most of AmEx’s travel benefits, which are well above average compared with the industry.

This is a card that you should just get.

 

 

Posted in favorite things, travel

Autonomous vehicles are going to change the world in more ways than you know

3692201862_ea517d2565_bAutonomous vehicles will change society in more fundamental ways than most imagine. Yes, there are the obvious ways that everyone talks about: driverless Ubers, automated trucks, cities without private vehicle ownership.

But there is a large ecosystem of occupations that benefit from bad driving.

  • Police officers. Most people probably won’t shed any tears over this. But there are a lot of cops whose role is traffic enforcement. With self-driving cars, they will be programmed to obey the rules.
  • Paramedics, flight nurses, ER doctors. Fewer car crashes mean fewer trips to the emergency room. I have a friend who is a flight nurse. Her job is to get in the helicopter to rescue people by the side of the road. There will be less need for that. In 2010-2011, there were 3.9 million annual visits to the emergency room because of car crashes. 43% of those arrived by ambulance.
  • ER doctors, radiologists, trauma surgeons. Of the people arriving in emergency rooms because of a car accident, 70% had imaging done, including X-rays (59%) and CT scans (30%).
  • Insurance agents, insurance underwriters order, claims examiners, personal injury lawyers. There is an entire ecosystem of people who benefit from the financial aftermath of car crashes. Car insurance in the U.S. is a $100 billion business. There’s a reason you see that gecko everywhere; car insurance companies are perennially among the largest advertisers. That’s just personal insurance. Commercial is billions more.
  • Tow-truck drivers, body shops, mechanics. Someone needs to clean up cars after the crash. Fewer crashes will mean fewer repairs. Body shops alone are a $40 billion business. 180,000 people work at body shops. The median salary is $40,000. That’s a nice lower-middle class job.
  • Parking enforcement officers (meter maid), parking meter collectors, driver license examiners. More of life’s little annoyances. Vehicles will nearly always be in motion; no worries about finding a meter to park at. No meters mean no parking enforcement needed. That also means no coins. (Other aspects of technology will chip away at the collections jobs. More on that later.) In NYC alone, parking tickets generated $565 million in fines. Camera violations were another $100 million.

These are just the second-order effects. There will be plenty more. There a lot of other industries like roadside motels, truck stops, restaurants and more that will feel third-order effects.

It will be one of the biggest changes to the transportation infrastructure since the Eisenhower interstate highway system was built beginning in the late 1950s.

Despite the challenges, autonomous vehicles provide a net societal good. We should minimize human suffering. We should be thrilled that air will be cleaner because fewer accidents mean fewer traffic jams.

But that’s cold comfort to those who lose their middle-class jobs.

Posted in cars, society

Favorite things, day 5: podcasts

Podcasts make me smarter. It’s that simple.

There is so much great information from so many smart people out there, on any topic you can think of.

My favorite podcasts are from experts who know what they’re talking about. Even better if they also interview smart guests.

Fortt Knox by Jon Fortt

Jon is one of the smartest voices on technology trends, the big tech companies as well as tech policy issues. He also interviews some of the biggest names in tech and business. I asked Jon what his favorite pods are. He said:

He is also a fellow refugee from the newspaper industry. Both of us made the right call there; both of us are sad about its state.

Slate Money with Felix Salmon

Felix talks about the global economy, finance and has been talking a lot about Brexit. (I’m guessing he’ll talk a lot about the disaster as it unfolds.) He also talks about technology companies. There are sometimes interesting segments on personal finance.

This is a very geeky podcasts, but I’m a geek, so that’s perfectly fine.

(I know I’m giving short shrift to his partners and guests, but I know Felix.)

Stay Tuned with Preet

Preet was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. SDNY has the most powerful and influential prosecutors in the world. Preet was famously fired by Trump for not returning his phone call.

Much of the podcast is focused on current politics, with impeachment dominating recent episodes and I imagine the months to come. The back half of the podcast is interviews with a stellar lineup of guests. My favorites are:

  • Ken Feinberg, who ran the 9/11 victims fund. Also known as the Master of Disaster, Feinberg is often called on to administer settlements and charitable donations. It’s an interesting look at how to assign dollar values to human life and suffering.
  • Edward Norton. I usually skip past celebrity interviews, but Norton just drew me in. Not only is he a terrific actor, he struck me as having genius-level knowledge. It was fascinating (and sad) to hear some of his anecdotes about structural racism. e.g. In NYC, they opened a beautiful beach to the public. But they built the bridges so low that public buses (relied on by African Americans) couldn’t fit under them.

Preet’s book, Doing Justice, has fascinating insights into our justice system and is a must read/listen for those who care about justice, holding white collar criminals accountable and the travesties inflicted by our justice system.

Disclosure: Jon and Felix are personal friends. I’ve never met Preet, though I hope to some day. Preet ducked a question I asked in an interview. I worked at Amazon, but was nowhere senior enough to meet Wilke. Affiliate link for Preet’s book.

Posted in favorite things, Uncategorized | Tagged

Rakesh’s travel secrets for your holiday travels

Having flown more than two million miles, including more than 45,000 in the past month, Over the years, I’ve developed strategies for coping with the hassles of air travel.

I hope you don’t need any of them on your holiday travels, but just in case:

  • It’s not about you. Don’t take flight cancellations or being involuntarily bumped personally. No one is out to get you. Running an airline is an incredibly hard business even on a good day. Add in miserable weather and high loads and a lot of people are going to be unhappy. As much as their decisions might inconvenience you, there’s usually (though not always) logic behind the decisions. Decisions take into account numerous factors including number of passengers inconvenienced, crew availability, availability of alternate flights and aircraft positioning.
  • OK, it’s a little about you. Despite these priority rules, gate agents do have some discretion to change your priority. If you’ve got a solid reason, it can’t hurt to ask. Customers who were bumped from previous flights sometimes get this kind of treatment.
  • Life’s not fair. The airline business is a business. It’s usually not first come, first served. If there’s a standby list, the 100k mile traveler who walks up 5 minutes before they start clearing standbys will get the seat over someone who flies once a year on cheap tickets and has been waiting 3 hours. Although the rules vary by airline, priority lists typically take into account things like frequent flier status, class of service, previous inconvenience, whether you are in a connecting city, fare paid and time of check in.
  • Always call the airline when your flight is canceled. Usually the gate agent will tell you go to the customer service desk for help. Don’t do it. At least not before you call the airline. Get on your cell phone with reservations and ask them for help. Ideally, you’ll do this while you’re walking toward customer service or standing in line. It’s a good idea to have the phone number in your speed dial so you don’t have to fumble for it. With advances in technology, they might be able to rebook you over the phone and email you a new boarding pass that you can pull up on your cell phone. That sure beats waiting in a 90 minute line at the airport!
  • Look at the departure boards for other flights to your destination. If your flight is canceled, look to see which gate the next flight to your destination is going out from. If it’s in the next hour, high tail it to that gate and ask the agent to get on that flight. Again, be on your phone with reservations as you’re walking and standing in line. (A bluetooth headset is great for this.) If your flight is a few hours away, chances are no one is working that flight yet and you’re better off in the customer service line.
  • Look for an empty gate with an unoccupied agent. Gate agents can help you with other flights, but won’t do it if they’re busy running their own flight. Be polite, ask respectfully and you might save yourself a long wait in line.
    • Corollary: Look for an agent with gray hair. Many airlines have put GUIs on top of the more powerful reservations systems that underlie them. Experienced agents often know the tricks to get the system to do things that less experienced agents can’t do.
  • If you’re a lounge member, go to the lounge for changes. Agents in airline lounges tend to know how to work the system better and are more willing to bend the rules.
    • If you’re not a lounge member, buy a day pass. It can be a great way to get aways from all of the noise on the concourse on a normal day, but even more so when the airport is going to hell. Of course, you also benefit from the nicer agents. During exceptionally difficult days, some airlines will stop selling day passes so that the lounges don’t get too crowded.
  • Be flexible. If you’re traveling to an area with multiple airports or airports within reasonable driving distance, consider taking flights there. If the change was the airline’s fault, they’ll usually pay to get you where you should’ve been. If it was weather or air-traffic control related, you’re on your own.
  • Be nice. People want to help people who are nice to them. The fastest way to get an agent to not help you is to start making demands, threaten to sue or start swearing. I witnessed one passenger in Las Vegas call an agent a “bitch” under his breath as he walked away. She called the gate he was going to and told that agent about it.
  • Call your friends. If you’re stuck and have a well-traveled friend, give them a call. I have a couple of people I can call when I get stuck to look up flight availability, hotels and other alternatives. Because they’re not dealing with dozens of other people, they can look at a wider range of options. They can give you a good picture of what your choices are. With options in hand, you become a gate agent’s friend by making their job easier. If you’re in my phone’s contact list, feel free to call me when you’re stuck.
  • If you have a really sticky problem, try FlyerTalk. FlyerTalk is the ultimate travel resource. It’s populated by ultra-frequent travelers. Many of them know more about airline reservations and ticketing than the typical reservations agent. Do a search to see if your problem is already covered. If it isn’t, pick the appropriate forum for your airline and post your question. Be sure you provide all the pertinent information, but don’t post things like confirmation numbers.
  • Sign up for your airline’s text messaging service. Many airlines offer text message alerts. In normal travel, this will send you flight status information including gate assignments. As airlines automate their service recovery, they’re using text messages to communicate flight information. When United cancels a flight they can often rebook you automatically. Your new flight information gets sent to your cell phone.
  • Don’t put too much stock in the flight status boards. When there is extreme weather and a lot of cancellations, the flight status boards are usually fiction. The times shown are best guesses and can change frequently. It’s important to know that they can also become earlier. I’ve seen flights go from a scheduled 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. back to an on time departure. It actually left at 11:00 p.m., so the people who relied on the 12:30 a.m. time missed it. If you leave the gate area, use your cell phone or laptop and check on the flight every 15 minutes or so.
  • Keep your cell phone and laptop chargers in your carry on. If you suffer long delays, there’s a good chance you’ll run out of power. You might need these tools to help book your next flight. Because every gadget seemingly has its own style of connector, these are hard to come by in an airport. If you find that you are running out of power, look for a “power save” mode, which usually lets you eke out some more use by dimming the screen or throttling the processor.
  • Keep a pair of headphones in your laptop bag. With a laptop, headphones and Wifi, you can amuse yourself while you wait for your next flight. I spent one recent delay watching crappy television at fox.com. It won’t make your delay any shorter, but it will feel like it.
Posted in airlines, rocky's travel, travel, Uncategorized

Favorite things, day 7: Hawaii

For the days leading up to Christmas, I’m counting down a few of my favorite things. These are not in priority order. The closest thing there is to an order is least surprising to most surprising.

Alaska Airlines has a BOGO offer that includes travel to Hawaii in early 2020. (Not an affiliate link.) Must book today.

All photos taken by me; message me for licensing.

Sun, sand, beach, surf, ancient cultures, outdoors — there’s so much to love about Hawaii. An archipelago of 8 primary islands, it offers a great break far away from most things. For Americans, no passport required.

Hawaii is not a monolithic place. I recommend different parts of Hawaii depending on what you’re interested in. In order of my favorites.

Kauai

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Hiking for all skill levels, gorgeous waterfalls. Kauai has one of the most famous hikes in the world – the Kalalau Trail. It’s sandwiched between the cliffs of the Na Pali Coast and the Pacific Ocean. It is always crowded, often muddy. Still, you have to do it. For the more adventurous, there is a spur trail that will take you to a narrow ribbon of water falling off the cliffs. The spur trail is four miles round trip, strenuous and poorly marked.

I prefer the Pihea-Alakai Swamp trail in Kokee State Park.

Hotel recommendation: Princeville Resort (formerly St. Regis Princeville).

Maui

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Beaches, beaches, beaches – by far the best beaches in the island. The road to Hana provides a windy path through lush forests and waterfalls.

Hotel recommendations: Fairmont Kea Lani, Andaz Maui.

Hotel recommendation if you’re trying to convince your significant other not to have kids: Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.

Big Island

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The Big Island is more low-key than its neighbor islands. The big highlight here is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The Kilauea Iki Crater hike has you hike from the rim of the crater down into the crater floor and up the other side. One of the best hikes I’ve done.

It is a long way to the volcano from Kailua-Kona area, where most people stay. You should plan to spend one night near the volcano. Unfortunately, like near most national parks, the quality of the lodging leaves a lot to be desired.

Hotel recommendation: Fairmont Orchid.

Hotel non-recommendation: Hilton Waikoloa.

Lanai

View from room Angelfish 3, Manele Bay Hotel

It’s not Maldives isolated, but it’s pretty isolated. There are basically two things to do on this island: golf and go to the beach.

This is where Bill Gates got married. He rented out every hotel room on the island and chartered all of the helicopters on nearby islands.

Ironically, Larry Ellison now owns more than 95% of the island.

I also saw Al and Tipper having breakfast here once.

There are two hotels, one on the beach and the other inland known for its golf courses. I don’t golf and I like the beach so I haven’t stayed there.

Hotel recommendation: Four Seasons Resort Lanai (formerly Manele Bay Hotel).

Oahu

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This is where most people go, partly because it’s the easiest to get to by air from most of the world. (From the West Coast, all of the above except Lanai, are accessibly nonstop.)

If you don’t vacation a lot, just need to get the hell out of a Midwestern ice scape and have kids in tow, this is probably a good place. You have city, sights (Pearl Harbor, most notably), beach, surf… a little bit of everything.

Waikiki Beach is one of the best known beaches in the world. It’s way too crowded for me. I try to avoid walking around Waikiki. Lots of kids and many, many planeloads and busloads of tourists from Japan.

I prefer to go the North Shore or Kailua areas. The Bellows Air Force Base beach is one of the most stunning beaches I’ve been to. Much of Lost was filmed on the North Shore.

Hotel recommendations: Royal Hawaiian, Westin Moana Surfrider. (I prefer the Royal Hawaiian, but it usually comes down to price.)

Hotel non-recommendation: Hilton Hawaiian Village.

I haven’t been to:

Molokai – I’ll get there some day.
Kahoolawe – It’s uninhabited and off limits.
Niihau – The Forbidden Island. It’s privately owned and you need an invite.

Posted in favorite things, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged

Favorite things, day 8: TiVo

For the days leading up to Christmas, I’m counting down a few of my favorite things. These are not in priority order. The closest thing there is to an order is least surprising to most surprising.

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TiVo has a special on their OTA Bolt until 12/29/19. Including lifetime service, it costs $350. There’s also a bonus package deal for a STB for another room. I recommend taking that. (Not an affiliate link.)

Twenty years into the existence of the DVR, there is still no substitute for the company that (almost) started it all: TiVo.

The company, whose name is synonymous with the digital video recorder, continues to create the best of them — even if vast majority of people don’t use theirs.

TiVo has the most polished interface of the combo DVR/streaming devices.

It also has four features that put it well ahead of everyone else:

  • Universal search. I can do one search for content across the vast majority of the recorded and streaming universe.
  • Extensive metadata. The search is powered by metadata that you can browse to your heart’s delight.
  • Automatic commercial skip. For heavily watched programming, like primetime network shows, you don’t even have to press a button. When the TiVo detects it’s at a commercial break, it skips past it.

The most important, for me, is offline download. I can store recorded shows on my iPad for watching on planes or in hotel rooms.

I can also stream shows from my home wherever I am in the world. There are no error messages that I’m outside of the license area for the content; no messages that my show has disappeared because it is no longer in the viewing window.

I can also watch recorded shows in other rooms with a dedicated device or a TiVo app. From the TiVo app, I can send it via AirPlay.

When I talk to PMs (both senior and aspiring), TiVo is always my cautionary story of how you can have the best product and still lose.

Distribution is incredibly important, as the cable companies have shown. The first 10 revs of cable company DVRs were horrible, horrible products. Comcast has finally come close to catching up with X1.

Deadweight loss quotient: Up to $600. But the OTA version will save you a ton of money over cable. Pair it with an HDTV antenna ($20-$50) and you’ll come out ahead in less than a year.

Posted in favorite things, television, tivo, Uncategorized, video

Favorite things, day 9: Alaska Airlines

For the days leading up to Christmas, I’m counting down a few of my favorite things. These are not in priority order. The closest thing there is to an order is least surprising to most surprising.

 

GIVEAWAY: I have ONE guest upgrade certificate on Alaska Airlines. It needs to be applied to your reservation by December 31. Travel can be later. Flights booked in Alaska’s “Saver” class are definitely not eligible.

If you would like it, are in an upgradeable fare bucket, and are willing to donate at least $50 to help sick children have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, please tweet me @rakeshlobster.

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What’s not to like about an airline that more or less runs like the good old days of air travel? Courteous staff, clean planes, great terminal facilities at San Francisco and Seattle, where I travel the most. Their social media support is great as well.

Unlike any other carrier I’ve flown, they proactively try to make things better when things go wrong.

A few of the highlights:

  • $25/2,500 mile baggage guarantee. If your bags don’t show up within 20 minutes of reaching the jetway, you get your choice of $25 credit or 2,500 frequent flier miles. (Pro tip: always take the miles. They’re worth more than the $25.)
  • Once when I had an extended mechanical delay, I received an apology email and a voucher before the plane touched down. I didn’t even have to ask.
  • In weather delays, gate agents have organized games in the gate area to keep passengers occupied.

The frequent flier program is the best in the industry. It used to be that frequent flier programs existed to reward loyalty of members. Most airlines now view them as short-term profit centers. Every opportunity to make money off the loyalty program. they jump at.

Alaska still has a traditional program that is based on miles flown. The underlying economics that Alaska has chosen build loyalty for the long term versus extracting as much revenue as possible in the short term. (A very quaint philosophy in today’s business world.)

I just finished up a round-the-world mileage run just to get top tier elite status on Alaska. I flew Mumbai-Hong Kong-San Francisco-London-Johannesburg-Victoria Falls and then the reverse to San Francisco.

I wouldn’t have done that on any other carrier.

There are elite benefits that are unheard of. MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75k can change paid tickets without any fees. That flexibility has a lot of value for me. (Southwest allows anyone to do this, but that is an extreme outlier; Southwest doesn’t have a route network that works for me.)

The Achilles’ Heel in Alaska for me is that their transcontinental flights do not have lie-flat beds, unlike American, Delta, jetBlue and United. But I’ve gotten to the point in my travels that flying 6 hours coast-to-coast is old hat.

Especially if you’re on the West Coast, Alaska should be your pick.

 

 

Posted in favorite things, travel, Uncategorized

Favorite things, day 10: First Republic

For the days leading up to Christmas, I’m counting down a few of my favorite things. These are not in priority order. The closest thing there is to an order is least surprising to most surprising.

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I had somehow left my card in Hong Kong and was on my way to Zimbabwe. ATMs are common, but few businesses take credit cards. So I needed cash. I emailed by banker and she offered a couple of options.

She said, “If you need cash now, we can work through the Visa network and get you a bank that can give you cash today … or we can get new ATM cards printed and sent to you at your hotel in Zimbabwe. Pick which is best for you.”

“I can wait for the card. Please send it. Can you also send some water bottles? I keep losing those things.”

“Let me check.”

“They’re worried that the water bottles will slow things down because they’d have to go through customs. We printed the cards, here’s the tracking number. We’ll get you those water bottles when you’re back home.”

This has been a typical experience for me at First Republic. It’s one of the few large institutions I work with where I feel like a person, not a number. I never have to provide an account number. My banker knows me. Not having to deal with annoying phone menus is reason enough. In 2019, who calls to get their bank balance? But many banks make you say representative four times.

You never have to deal with an automated system here. Stop by the bank and chat with your banker, or email or call your banker. If you stop by, you can get fresh-baked cookies. Not sure if you have to be a customer to get free cookies, but I don’t think they’ve carded me for cookies. (I opened my account in Oregon, so I do most of my transactions by email.)

First Republic has treated me better when I had $5,000 on deposit than Chase or Wells with more than $500,000.

The star account here is their ATM Rebate Checking. A $3,500 minimum average balance gets you a solid checking out with unlimited worldwide ATM rebates. Some months, when I’ve been traveling extensively, I’ve received more than $30 in rebates.

There’s a detail buried in that sentence that illustrates the philosophy. Most banks use the minimum balance, not the minimum average balance when calculating fees. That means that if at any point in the month, you had a balance of $3,499.99 or less, you’d get hit with the monthly fee. Because FR uses the average, dipping below for a day won’t trigger the fees.

Instead of the gotcha, they play fair.

I’ve also never had to pay for things like cashier’s check or notary services.

Whenever I get service this good, I’m always suspicious. I know some companies have me flagged in their CRM systems as an influencer. (I had amazing service from Comcast!) But the feedback I get from friends who are also First Republic customers is that they also get similar service.

First Republic’s slogan is, “It’s a privilege to serve you.” That sounds like one of those made up slogans which falls apart when given any scrutiny.

This is a rare case when it isn’t.

Deadweight loss quotient: This should only be a gift to yourself, or spouse/significant other with their consent. Though I’m sure that if you want to give a CD full of money, the deadweight loss there would be zero.

Posted in banks, favorite things, personal finance, Uncategorized