An Intro to Reward Travel: Credit Cards Are Not *always* Your Enemy

So after an auspicious start to the blog with the review of our trip to Norway, I thought I’d start making good on the promise to show you guys how exactly we manage to go on these trips. It probably seems complicated, but I assure you guys, it’s not. It just take a bit of time investment on the front end (ya know, to learn it all), and then you can pretty easily hop on things at will.

First things first, right? There are two methods to my madness here, both of which are equally important. In late 2015 I started looking into cheaper ways to travel to Europe, since I had been wanting to go over for a long time. I quickly stumbled into the idea of credit card rewards, and while I originally was skeptical, I found that if you manage it correctly, you can earn tons of rewards without incurring any debt/interest payments/horrible life-ruining fees.

The key, obviously, is not to carry a balance from month to month. Now, since I’m not a huge spender and I don’t have a ton of money, I rely most heavily on credit cards’ sign-up bonuses to earn my points. As an incentive, most cards will offer anywhere from 50k-100k points for you to sign up and spend X amount of dollars on them in a given time. Take, for example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. It offers a 100k point sign up bonus after 4K in spend in 3 months.

That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, rather than going out and buying yourself four thousand dollars worth of stuff that you don’t need, it makes much more sense to simply transfer all of your spending over to the card. For me, that means my mortgage payment, my car payment, all utilities (water, electricity, gas, phone, internet), insurance payments, etc end up going onto the card. In a month, that total equals about $1900 worth of bills. So, just after 2 months in, I’ve met my spending goal without incurring a ton of extra debt. And, since I already have that money earmarked for bill payment, I simply use that to pay off the credit card.

Then I receive the bonus! 100k points is worth anywhere from $1700-$5000, depending on how you use it. Not too shabby, right? So what do you do if your mortgage doesn’t accept credit card payments? There are actually a ton of services out there that allow you to pay with a credit card and then turn around and issue a check to your bank. Plastiq.com is one of them, but there are a multitude of others. Granted, these folks do charge a small fee for their services, but it ends up worth it in the long run.

After earning the bonus, I simply rinse and repeat with different cards. The credit card market is extremely competitive right now, so there are a ton of good options out there.

Will this hurt my credit score?

I know this question probably bothers a lot of you. The short answer is no. While people generally talk about the amount of inquiries on your report as damaging to your score, the extra lines of credit that you receive will actually increase your score.

As an example, let me give you my own credit history. Since starting this whole thing in late 2015, I’ve gotten 13 new credit cards. (Though only two of them were in 2015, the rest were 2016). That’s right, I averaged essentially one new card per month for the entirety of last year. And you know what? My credit score has actually increased. The reason for this is simple: the number of inquiries on your credit report has a low impact on your overall score, while the available amount of credit that you have (and your overall utilization) has a medium impact on your score. My credit is actually better now than when I started.
The key, again, and I can’t say this enough, is: don’t carry a balance. Otherwise, all the rewards you receive will be eaten into by the interest you’re paying each month. Instead, transfer your regular spending onto the card and use the cash you were going to spend anyway to pay off the card. Trust me, it’s worth it.

What are some of the things I’m getting to do with these rewards?

Flights:

Fly round-trip Los Angeles- Tokyo
Fly round trip Atlanta- Dominican Republic
Fly Houston-Orlando- San Francisco

Fly round trip New York-Madrid
Fly round trip Los Angeles-Dubai
Fly one way New York- Washington DC
Fly New York- Sacramento- Houston

Hotels:

5 night stay at Disneyworld’s Dolphin hotel (free instead of $2100)
6 night stay at the Doubletree Hilton Jumeriah Beach in a 1000sq ft suite ($400 instead of $1700)
4 night stay at the Doubletree Aqaba ($160 instead of $600)

This is just the tip of the iceberg here. There are so many opportunities out there to be taken, and it just takes a (teeny tiny) leap of faith to jump in.

Anyway, this was a brief primer on some of the rewards you can get with cards. Let me know if you guys like this/ would like to hear more/ want an in-depth guide on earning and redemptions. This is something I’m pretty passionate about, and the more people I can bring into this world, the better!

-Carissa the know-it-all

Norway! Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the Trom(sø): Part 2

Round Two!

Ok guys, so I left off yesterday after dog sledding, which was the most awesome experience we’ve ever had. Now I’m going to attempt to fit the rest of the trip into one other post. Wish me luck. (<— I failed so hard at this)

Norway: the next day. Remember how I said we were exhausted? Yeah, well that translated into “so sore I think I might die,” the next morning. However, we had reservations to go snowmobiling and time waits for no (wo)man, so up we got. After eating a super special Norwegian waffle (it’s a thing!) we packed off into another bus and rode an hour and a half to Lyngsfjord, where the weather is supposedly more stable, or something.

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The plans for the day called for a morning of snowmobiling, a delicious, traditional Sami lunch in a a traditional Sami tent (do you see a trend here?), several hours of a camp stay, where we were invited to wander around while waiting for nightfall, and then a 2 KM HIKE THROUGH THE VALLEYS OF SNOW IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT SPOT FROM WHICH TO VIEW THE AURORA LIGHTS. Cool, right?

Well, I’m going to tell you straight off- after the day before, this trip was decidedly more…pedestrian. Think more “gang of tourists crashing their snowmobiles” than “race through the outback on a motorized sled.” Since we were riding two to a snowmobile, I let David go first. He just looked so darn excited. For those of you who haven’t ridden one before, I’m going to tell you, it’s a lot like a motorcycle, except if your motorcycle had tank treads and also no power steering and you were buried in snow. Very…unique. And cold! The gear they gave us at this camp was nowhere near sufficient to keep us warm, especially as we got up to speeds around 40mph.

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Channeling the Michelin man

Much like the day before, the trails we were attempting to plough through were nigh invisible, and this led for some hilariously awful incidents. I’m not ashamed to admit that David and I were the first to *almost* fall over. As in, the whole thing started tipping and we went waist deep into the snow before heaving ourselves back over and righting the dang thing. No one else was so lucky. Every time someone tipped over, the whole group had to stop and wait for the instructor to go pick them back up. Very thrilling.

Well, we finally got to the top of the mountain and I was in full on bitch-mode. I was cold, I was pissed off, and most of all, I didn’t want to take control of the stupid snowmobile. David, the calming and rational fellow that he is, finally convinced me to, and I’m glad he did. It ended up being fun, or *whatever*, and I had a blast flying down the mountain at full speed.

After we returned to base camp, we were invited to warm up with some tea and reindeer stew (probably the ones I saw running away yesterday) before settling in to our own private cabin for the next 6 hours. They gave us some Norwegian board games (????), a few candles, and headlamps in case we needed to go to the bathroom (across camp). Aaaand then we sat. And sat. And waited. And sat.

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Our very exclusive very private very dark cabin

Finally, 6 hours later, the rest of our Aurora lights group arrived.

Now let me just pause here and tell you guys that I booked this thing specifically because it included hiking. Like, who wouldn’t want to haul their carcasses through the wilderness in an effort to find the most *perfect* place for the lights? So original. So unique.

Well, it turns out that the hike involved leaving our tent and then standing about…I don’t know…5 steps away? It turned out, our guide gleefully told us, that the light activity was so strong there was no need to go hiking! Yay! 😦

So I’m going to admit this right now. We didn’t bring a professional camera. Scorn me all you want, it’s fine, but I thought it would be really awesome to just sit back and watch the lights play out across the sky. Not so, my friends. Not so. Our guide didn’t think so either, and his interest in us disappeared entirely once he realized we didn’t have a camera/tripod setup. Instead, he focused his attentions entirely upon the rest of our group, 9 single Italian women who needed *extra* attention and guidance. Seriously guys, this dude was a sleaze. When one of the women asked if he needed help with anything, he replied “yeah, I need you to stand there and look pretty….ok thanks.”

You should have seen her face.

After finishing with the lights, we went into another Sami tent for another traditional Sami meal. This time, it was fish stew, which I only found out after biting into the meat and immediately spitting back out. I’m so classy. I told our guide (I purposefully forgot his name because he was the worst) that I didn’t eat fish. He told me that was too bad and to enjoy my bread. But then guess what guys? Guess who else didn’t eat fish? One of the pretty Italian ladies! So of course he dashed out to fetch her alternate food. I guess he had a spare hand or something since he begrudgingly brought me a bowl of tomato soup. Such thoughtfulness.

Anyway, by the end of the night I was fed up with it and just wanted to leave. The lights were great- and we got some awesome pictures, despite only using our camera phones.

The snowmobiling was fun too, but overall, the day was just too long, and jerkface guide man really put a damper on the experience. If we were to go back again, I’d still do these awesome things, but tourism companies are a dime a dozen in Tromsø, so I’d definitely pick a different one. I’ll sum up the day with his Facebook quote about the evening, “9th of December in Camp Tamok. Great night with alot of Italian passion.”

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-Carissa the nonentity

Norway! Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the Trom(sø): Part 1

Hey all,

Today I want to talk about our trip to Norway this past December. I know when I started posting up photos at least half of ya’ll were rolling your eyes and sighing “are they traveling again?”
The answer to that was yes! Our trip to Norway, while short, was one of my favorite trips of all time.

How did we even pick that place, you ask? Well, you can thank a bottle of wine and Google Chrome’s saved credit card information for that. I mean, I’m not saying I regret it, but I’ve definitely made more informed choices!

That being said, the number one reason I jumped on the flight tickets out there was because they were going for an awesome price- it was $335 round trip from New York to Oslo, so obviously we had to go! (Fun fact I accidentally bought two tickets for myself and had to have David call Norwegian Air’s help line to reticket his) How did I stumble onto these tickets? I follow a nifty website called travelpirates.com, which you’ll find is a recurring theme in my posts. I’m a sucker for good deals.

Once I started researching Norway, it became clear that some of the things they excel most at are winter activities. Duh. Since our trip was only a few days long, I booked us a flight straight up to Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle, to get our money’s worth on our trip.

Sadly, it was too early to stay in an ice hotel (igloo?), but there was plenty of snow to be found. With an average temperature of 25 degrees (ok but really it felt colder) and daily blizzarding, it truly felt like we were in the arctic. Or, like, Canada.

Now, I don’t know if you guys know this, but Norway is an insanely expensive place to live/eat/play. We found this out to our detriment during our first meal, where our cheeseburgers and fries cost a cool $25/each plus tip. Luckily, most of our activities included food (reindeer stew!) so we didn’t have to pay often.

I’m going to divert here for a second and tell you guys about our hotel. I promised that I would explain to you how we get to travel so much, and while I didn’t use a ton of tricks for Norway, (aside from cheap planes tickets) I did do a few things to help keep costs down.

As anyone who has had to be near me for more than 10 minutes knows (Sorry Chrissy) I am super into the credit card reward game. I just started last year, but already it has helped make my travel…just…incredible. There are a number of really good travel rewards cards out there, but one of my favorites is called the Citi Prestige. Amongst numerous other perks, the card offers an unconditional “buy 3 nights get the 4th free” deal on all hotel bookings. And I mean all. That’s an automatic 25% discount on any hotel you’re trying to get. So that’s what I did! I called them up, had them reserve it for me, and a few weeks after I finished my stay, the money was back on my card, plus taxes. It’s a really sweet deal. We ended up staying at the Scandic Ishavshotel, which was centrally located and really nice. It even had heated floors!

Another trick I used, and I use the word minimally, was to find a hotel that served a full breakfast. This seems obvious, but in a location where meals routinely cost $50/pop (yes, even for breakfast), this really saved our asses. Happy and full, we were able to skate through the day without spending tons of other money on food.

Ok! Now back to the good stuff! By far my favorite activity was the dog sledding that we did on our first day. Now, Tromsø has some really decent tourist activities. They’ve also got a boatload of options for dog sledding expeditions. However, scrolling through the available options, there were ones of different difficulties, differing lengths, etc. If you guys have met me, you probably know that I’m the kind of girl to be like “oh yeah you gotta flip upside down then climb a mountain naked? No problem.” (Which is why I’m constantly injured). So, barely restraining myself from the multi-day dog expedition, I picked the full-day one. It was costly- but oh man was it worth it.

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It was just four of us on the full length expedition. Well, the four of us and our guide, an Australian named Tim who was in Norway on his summer break. He had been coming up for a few years and knew extensively the surrounding locale, which was really nice. Also great was the fact that he spoke native English, which our Spanish companions didn’t seem to love. Whoops!

So, as we started out, he warned us that the snow had just fallen a few days before, and that it was possible there wouldn’t be any trails created for us to follow. Let’s just say that was an understatement.

Let me lay the scene out for you.

The vista spread out before us, a sprinkling of snow falling atop the dog kennels, where those who were left behind bayed with longing. “Now here,” Tim said, his Australian accent thicker behind his balaclava, “you simply step up onto the sled, and when you want to go you simply shout ‘yip!’ And the dogs will move. Does that sound ok?”

I nodded, bundled in my Arctic gear, barely able to move behind the layers of fabric. Jumping onto his sled, Tim signaled to his dogs, bounding away in a smooth line. I was next- the others behind me, and my heart squeezed with anticipation. Leaping onto my sled, I too, called to the dogs, a bright ‘Yip! Yip!’ That sent them lunging forward- at last- to run free through the snow, my sled bumping behind. I bent my knees and leaned forward, gasping in the freezing air and reveling in my freedom, when, abruptly, the sled stopped. I pitched forward over the top of it, catching myself on the bar and peering in front of me in confusion. What was going on? Behind me, the dogs of the other team started whining, and I narrowed my eyes- not believing what I was seeing. Yes. I, Carissa, the dog sledder of the century- had successfully raced my dogs across the moor- a full ten steps before my lead dog stopped to take a shit.

Grace is my middle name.

After that snafu, my team began to run again, and I quickly caught up to Tim, the rest of our expedition behind me as we raced through the wilderness. One of the first things I saw was a pack of wild reindeer, gallivanting away (lest we make them into soup). Soon, however, the trail ended, and the real work began. It is a little known fact that in the case of trail-less activity, dog sledding instead becomes sled-pushing-up-a-mountain-in-arctic-gear-ing.

Nevertheless, it was a blast, and we stopped at midday in the midst of the swirling snow to eat lunch. Perched atop reindeer pelts, we drank hot cocoa and ate chicken pesto sandwiches, a rare delicacy only found in such places as “Sub-way” and “Qui-znos”

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I call this “lunch in a blizzard with a bad camera”

Finally, once finished with our lunch, we climbed back onto our sleds for the last half of our rollick through the snow. In the winter, it never really becomes daylight, it only becomes “less dark,” and our time of “less dark” was ending quickly. (It usually goes from about 11am-1pm). Strapping headlamps to our heads, we took off, sledding for another few hours before turning and heading back towards camp.

Once returned, we peeled off our gear, which had performed admirably, and sat down to eat a traditional Sami meal in a traditional Sami tent. It was dark, smoky, and hot, and absolutely perfect after a long day of dog sledding.

Boarding our bus back home, we could barely climb up the metal steps. Dog sledding was exhausting, nerve-wracking, and a little dirty, but one of the best times I’ve ever had. Worth every penny.

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Post dog-sledding. Exhausted and thrilled.

Happy 2017!

As my 27th birthday approaches, I’m looking back at all the things we’ve been able to do. And, since this is a blog about travel, (duh) I’m thinking about all the fantastic things we have planned for this year.

So far we’ve kept pretty mum about our plans this year; things have been in flux, but we’ve got a tenuous plan so far and I’d like to share it with you guys. Since we’re heading to Edinburgh in August, (for school!) we had to mash a lot of things in a little amount of time. So, without further ado, here is Carissa and David’s Proposed Itinerary of 2017:

From January to February I’m heading back home to California. Going to hang out with the fam, get our dogs sorted (they don’t love travel as much as we do), and generally hang out as unemployed folks are wont to do. David is going to hang back in Maryland, working and finishing up his degree. This is important to know, because the next step is:

Carissa’s super extreme adventure to Europe (with her dog). That’s right! From February until the end of March I’ll be powing around Europe with my dog, Nala. I’m starting in Spain and working my way through France and Italy. For the most part, I’ll be hanging out in the warmer climates, because who really wants to be in the snow? Um, hello, Californian here.

Starting in April, I’ll be joined by David, fresh out of a job and eager to experience…wait for it…Jordan. Don’t kill me. As you guys know, I lived there earlier this year- BUT- David hasn’t and he’s been so looking forward to seeing Petra! This also comes as a recommendation from my soon-to-be Arabic professor from Edinburgh. See, it’s for school!

Ok, once we wheeze tiredly back to the US, we head right back out to go to Bali! This trip will be the most luxurious thing we’ve ever done, not the least because we’re getting to go out with family. David’s brother and sister-in-law are coming with us, and I’m looking forward to lounging around our own private villa. Life’s so hard.

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Then! And this is one I’m so excited about! We’re heading to…….Dubai! I snagged some AMAZING deals to get out here, so we’ll be living (cheaply) in the lap of luxury and doing things that Dubai-ians do. Ride camels? Drive sports cars? More research on that later.

At this point we’ll be straight up pooped, so we’re going to hang out and kick our heels for a bit before moving to Scotland. Once there, it’s full steam ahead with schooling so we won’t have time to do much else.

Except for a trip to Japan.

Of course.

-Carissaimg_0027