Travel

5 Unknown Travel Hacks for the Modern Traveler

After spending almost a year and a half in rental cars, hotel rooms, and flights, with impulse trips to Stockholm, Mexico City, Japan, Macau, and more, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite travel hacks for the modern traveler. Whether you’re a consultant, working remote, or just love traveling, these hacks will be sure to get you room upgrades, first class tickets, and that hot pink convertible you’ve always dreamed of.

  1. Airline Elite Status Challenge
  2. Hotel Elite Status Challenge
  3. Car Elite Status Matches
  4. Chase Sapphire Reserve
  5. TSA Precheck/Global Entry

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1. Airline Elite Status Challenge

I had gone far too long before I realized the wonders of Airline Elite Status Challenges. What is an Airline Elite Status Challenge? Great question!

Have you every wondered how certain travelers always get the best seats, always board first, and almost always get upgraded to first class? Let me tell you, it’s not always because they’re paying for it, it’s because they have status with the airline and you don’t have to be a frequent traveler to get access. To get the most basic status on most airlines you would need to fly a minimum of 25,000 miles within one year. Those miles may be physical distance flown, or some combination of physical distance and the amount you paid for the ticket. Even this can be hard to achieve if you only fly every few months.

In comes the elite status challenges. Soon after I started consulting, I learned that you could secretly apply for these airline status challenges that will let you earn status quickly if you can prove you fly often. More often than not, this means you would need to fly just 12,500 miles within 90 days to get the next level of status.

Here is a great article from The Points Guy about how to hack the American Executive Platinum Challenge. It’s important to note you may have to pay for some of these challenges or need to qualify first, but definitely worth the challenge.

For American, you can accept a challenge to receive AAdvantage Gold status by earning 7,000 elite qualifying miles (EQMS) within 90 days and paying a $120 fee. Or, you can obtain a challenge to receive AAdvantage Platinum status by earning 12,500 EQMs in 90 days and paying a $200 fee.

To sign up for one of these offers, you can contact American Airlines at 888-697-5636.

For United, it’s a little trickier. They don’t have an outright challenge, but they will match the status on any of their competitors, including American and Delta. Check out their MileagePlus Premier Status Match Challenge page for more details and to match your status.


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2. Hotel Elite Status Challenge

Marriott/SPG, Hilton, IHG, all have similar challenges where you can earn status quickly if you can prove you’re a consistent traveler. Usually you have to wait until you qualify for these challenges, but what many don’t know, is that you can simply call up the rewards line at the hotel and ask to do their Elite Status Challenge.

It’s what I was able to do with both Marriott and Hyatt. Just be prepared to complete the challenge once you start it. If you fail to complete the challenge within the allotted time, you won’t receive status, and you won’t be able to do the challenge again for another 5 years.

Be aware of any potential partnerships between airlines and hotels as well. United and Marriott have an exclusive partnership, allowing status holders on the airline or hotel to match that status to the other. So if you have gold status with United, you may be able to earn automatic gold status with Marriott and vice versa.


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3. Car Elite Status Matches

Same goes for earning status with Hertz, Avis, and many other car rental companies. I will admit, it’s harder to get a status match with Hertz, but it is possible. With Hertz gold, for example, you can get automatically confirmed vehicle reservations, expedited rental service, upgrades, and point’s bonuses. Check with your hotel or airline to see if they offer a match for car rental companies.


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4. Chase Sapphire Reserve

I wrote extensively about the Chase Sapphire Reserve in another article, but I’ll give you the quick and dirty here. With the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you get 100,000 points after you spend $4000 in the first 3 months (worth $2100 with Chase Ultimate Rewards®), $300 annual travel credit automatically applied to your account after each travel expense, $100 reimbursement for your Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® application, access to 900+ airport lounges worldwide, and 3X points on Hotels, Flights, Taxis (UbersLyfts), Restaurants, and any other travel related expenses.

This card along with my status at Marriott has helped me book a $1700 hotel room at the Ritz Carlton in Macau, the Premier suite at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, and a $23,000 First-Class Seat on Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Definitely a must have for any traveler.


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5. TSA Pre-check/Global Entry

While there are numerous other options for expedited airport security (CLEAR for example), TSA Pre-check or Global Entry is still the quickest and most affordable way to get through security. I almost missed my flight back to San Francisco from Chicago when I was visiting family for Thanksgiving. If it wasn’t for TSA Pre-check, I would have definitely missed my flight. The best part is that with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you get free credit for TSA Pre-check or Global Entry, and once approved, you’ll have it for 5 years.


While this list is not exhaustive, these are some of the best travel hacks I’ve found during my year and a half of constant travelling. If you know of any other hacks I may have forgotten, comment below!

I WENT TO A MAID CAFE IN TOKYO

December of 2015, I went on an 8 Day solo trip through Japan hitting up Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt. Koya, and Osaka. By more one of the most exciting and impulsive trips I’ve ever taken. In this video, I hit up Akhibara, Asakusa, Ueno Park, and of course, a Maid Cafe (If you don’t know what that is, Google it). Stay tuned for my next video on Mt. Koya, and praying with Buddhist monks in the hills of Japan.

ritz carlton macau

MY $1700 STAY AT THE RITZ CARLTON MACAU

During my Hong Kong trip this past winter, after a short soiree through Japan, my friend and I decided to take a quick trip to the Sin City of the East, Macau. As in my usual attitude towards “nothing but the best”, we decided to stay in one of the best hotels we could muster in the Las Vegas of Asia, the Ritz Carlton. We booked the Carlton Suite with a 1 King bedroom, 1.5 marble bathrooms, complimentary wine, and a fully automated bidet, which I’ll get to in just a minute.

Ritz carlton macau

No joke, this hotel room was 13,500 HKG for one night, which converts to about $1700 USD a night. Using my Chase Sapphire Reserve points, we were able to reserve this room for only about 40,000 points.

Getting to the hotel was a challenge in itself, as we navigated the maze that was the Galaxy Macau complex with 6 different hotels, 3 Michelin star restaurants, and a massive casino.

We took the elevator up to the 51st floor to check into the hotel. In front of us were two large desks, occupied by two receptionists, and surrounded by rather large vases. Towards the back were sweeping views of downtown Macau. You could see the Macau Tower, MGM Macau, and Wynn Macau, amongst a few. I sat down at the desk as a woman checked me in, asked for the usual information (although a bit skeptical at what a 23-year-old such as myself was doing at a resort like the Ritz Carlton), and proceeded to give me details about the room.

We took the elevator down to the 35th floor, walked down a long, calmly lit hallway lined with even more large vases, and stepped into the Carlton Suite.

rtiz carlton suite macau bedroom

The king bedroom had it’s own chandelier, love seat, tv, automated curtains and blinds, and was connected to the luxurious, top to bottom, marble bathroom.

ritz carlton suite macau bathroom

The bathroom was covered in marble, had its own chandelier, hot tub, his and her’s vanities, a rain shower, a powder room, and a fully automated bidet with a remote control. This was the most advanced toilet I’ve ever seen, even compared to Japan, with buttons to lift up the seat, light-up the bowl, and even air it out.

ritz carlton suite macau living room

The living room had more vases, a little study area, a half bathroom, a wine cabinet, and another bed.

ritz carlton welcome package

Before arriving, the staff had laid out a welcome package for us, complete with a complimentary bottle of red wine, and assorted fruits, chocolates, and macaroons.

ritz carlton

They even wrote me a hand written letter to welcome us to the Ritz Carlton. Now that’s some VIP service!

view from ritz carlton macau

Overall, we had a great time in Macau. The Ritz-Carlton was one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed at in my life. It’s unfair to compare Macau to Sin City. It’s another animal entirely, and definitely a city worth visiting again!

 

Mt. Fuji

Top 10 Things to do in The Land of the Rising Sun – Tokyo

“Each complex is a small town, and their numbers make up this enormous capital. Like cells in a body, each contains identical elements, and the resulting pattern is an organic one.” – Donald Ritchie

The nighttime lights in Tokyo are overwhelming. Billions of bright bulbs and boards begging for your attention, yearning for your Japanese yen. You think: ‘With all this brilliance, the rumors must be true: this must be one of the most expensive cities on Earth. How else could they afford their electricity bills?’ But I’ve got a little secret for you: Tokyo isn’t as expensive as everyone says it is.

This past winter, I decided to take a solo trip through Japan, visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt. Koya, and Osaka along the way (videos to come soon). Unlike my previous, way over the top trips, like spending a Weekend in Stockholm, visiting the Avenue of the Dead, flying First Class from Hong Kong to San Francisco, or staying at the Ritz Carlton in Macau, I decided to a take a more down to earth approach to Japan, staying in hostels and meeting locals. Over the course of 4 days in Tokyo, we grew our squad to 3 Americans, 2 Australians, and 1 Malaysian, visited some of the best spots and bars in Tokyo, and found what it truly meant to visit the Land of the Rising Sun. Below I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 affordable places you should visit in Tokyo.

1. GOLDEN GAI

Golden Gui was, by far, one of my favorite places to visit in Tokyo. A subset of the Shinjuku neighborhood, Golden Gui is composed of a small network of 6 narrow alleys, barely wide enough for a single person to walk through with over 200 tiny, shanty-style bars, clubs, and eateries in one square block. Many of the bars are restricted to “foreigners” and are reserved for regulars only, while others are open to new visitors and feature various themes ranging from old-school speakeasies to straight up Hello Kitty.

2. SHINJUKU

shinjuku

Shinjuku is the larger neighborhood that contains Golden Gui and is one of the largest neighborhoods for nightlife and bars when compared to Hong Kong, London, or even New York. This neighborhood is just as busy as the popular shopping district, Shibuya, but with more millennials and some of the craziest sites in Tokyo, like the Robot Restaurant shown above.

3. SHIBUYA

shibuya

Shibuya is the largest shopping district in Tokyo, with more neon signs per square block to compete with Times Square in New York. There are more two-story televisions in this neighborhood than anywhere else in the world. It’s a popular shopping and eating destination among many Tokyoites (Yes, that’s actually what they’re called). Beautiful lights at night, and hundreds of shopping options, make this a classic destination of choice in Tokyo.

4. ASAKUSA

asakusa

I stayed in a hostel in Asakusa during my visit to Tokyo. One of the more affordable locations for solo travelers, and also home to Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest and most significant Buddhist temple. During the day, you can walk by the hundreds of restaurants and tourist shops lining the path leading up to Sensoji Temple.

5. UENO PARK

ueno park

ueno park    ueno park

Take a stroll through the beautiful Ueno Park, and watch families soaking in the sun, observe street performers, and find locals painting some of the beautiful scenes that can be found within the park, like the old man painting Toshogu Shrine above.

6. OWL CAFE

owl cafe

You’ve probably heard of the many cat cafes throughout Japan, allowing weary travelers to grab a coffee while enjoying the company of cats from around the world. Owl Cafes, on the other hand, are a whole nother animal (pun intended). Take a break by checking out the Owl Cafe in Asakusa, grab a coffee, and pet a Barn Owl.

7. MAID CAFE

maid cafe

While lesser known, Maid Cafes are a subset of the many cosplay restaurants in Tokyo. Waitresses dressed in maid costumes act as servants and treat the customers as masters. Definitely one of the more interesting experiences in Tokyo, and a must for groups!

8. TSUTA RAMEN RESTAURANT

tsuta ramen restaurant    tsuta ramen restauranttsuta ramen restaurant

Enjoy Ramen? Then definitely stop by Tsuta, a tiny ramen restaurant located in the Sugamo neighborhood, and the only ramen restaurant to receive 1 Michelen star. I got there early to get a ticket with my reservation time for 1pm, allowing us to explore the city and come back at our specified time. Once inside, you go to the vending machine, select the type of ramen you would like to order, and pay. Needless to say, it was some of the best ramen I’ve ever had in my life.

9. TOKYO SKYTREE

tokyo skytree

The Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting, restaurant, and observation tower just north-east of the Asakusa neighborhood. While traditionally more touristy, you can get sweeping 360 views of Tokyo from the upper decks, and American tourists can get priority access. I would suggest going to the Skytree right before sunset to catch a glimpse of why Japan is called the Land of the Rising Sun.

10. MT. FUJI

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji is a must see if you go during the summer. I made the mistake of going in the winter when amateur hikers are discouraged from making the trek due to limited amenities and guides available.  The mountain itself may look more attractive from afar than from close up, but the views on clear days and the experience of climbing through the early morning hours among hundreds of equally minded hikers from across the world are very rewarding.


See anything that should be on this list, shoot me a message at jmulakala@gmail.com.

Interested in taking a trip to Japan and would like more advice or places to see, things to do, and food to eat, shoot me a message at jmulakala@gmail.com

MY $23,000 FIRST CLASS SEAT ON CATHAY PACIFIC

I travel quite a bit, but usually it’s either for work or I’m trying to find the cheapest, budget flight I can, but for my recent trip from Hong Kong to San Francisco I wanted to do something impulsive, so I booked First Class with Cathay Pacific. The retail cost of this flight is over $23,000 one-way. Naturally, I couldn’t afford a $23,000 ticket (far more than my student loans) so I redeemed 110,000 miles on my Chase Sapphire Card.

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The $23,000 First Class ticket on Cathay Pacific

I arrived at the MTR check-in counter in Hong Kong about 5 hours before my departure time. I’d heard about the new First Class lounge at HKG and didn’t want to miss a minute exploring it. After hoping on a quick train to the airport, checking-in, and passing through security, I headed towards Cathay Pacific’s new, The Pier First Lounge.

The lobby of the The Pier, First Lounge

The lobby of the The Pier, First Lounge

Open Bar at The Pier, First Lounge

Open Bar at The Pier, First Lounge

All the drinks and snacks you can think of

All the drinks and snacks you can think of

After arriving at the lounge, I headed to the restaurant for a 3-course dinner. I ordered the Pasta Salad, Walnut Pesto Linguini, and Creme Brulee.

Walnut Pesto Linguini

Walnut Pesto Linguini

Creme Brulee

Creme Brulee

After dinner and a quick nap, I boarded the flight and got settled into seat 1A. My first impression of the seat was just how insanely big it was. Cathay Pacific only has three seats per row, making them one of the widest airline seats in the air today. The first class suite also doesn’t have sliding doors, with Cathay preferring to have an open layout, unlike Emirates.

Seat 1A on Cathay Pacific

Seat 1A on Cathay Pacific

However, it is more than made up by the fact there are only six seats in the entire cabin, making it one of the smallest and most exclusive first cabins in the sky. Overall, there were only two flight attendants serving three paying passengers and a Cathay Pacific pilot. This was going to fun!

Seat 1A on Cathay Pacific

Seat 1A on Cathay Pacific

After I sat down, my two first class flight attendants and the pilot introduced themselves. Surprisingly, the entire crew was San Francisco-based, instead of Hong Kong-based and have been doing 2 flights a week for several years. I almost felt like I shouldn’t be there. I was surrounded by people more than double my age.

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A young gentleman then asked me what I would like to drink. I asked for a glass of champagne and he quickly brought over a glass of Krug. Soon after, the doors were closed and I was off to San Francisco. After a quick champagne refill, I was ready to order supper.

Menu on Cathay Pacific Flight

Menu on Cathay Pacific Flight

The server came over and set the table with a table cloth, silverware, and glassware. I ordered the Mushroom cream soup as an appetizer,

Mushroom Cream Soup

Mushroom Cream Soup

and the Grilled Eggplant Stack along with a glass of Pinot Noir.

Grilled Eggplant Stack

Grilled Eggplant Stack

After dinner and a few movies, I was ready for bed. I put on my complimentary Cathay Pacific pajamas,

Cathay Pacific Pajamas

Cathay Pacific Pajamas

while the flight attendant came over and made my bed.

Flight attendant preparing my bed

Flight attendant preparing my bed

Emirates may have the enclosed suite, but the extra width and open design made my seat feel like a real bed that I could stretch out in. The bed lining was perfect and I had probably the biggest pillow I’ve slept on so far on a plane. I had the most comfortable sleep on a flight I’d ever had.

I woke up as we were somewhere over the pacific, 3 hours from San Francisco. The flight attendant came over and gave me the breakfast menu. I started with a plate of fruit, croissants, and orange juice.

Fruit Plate

Fruit Plate

and ordered the Breakfast Egg Scramble.

Breakfast Egg Scramble

Breakfast Egg Scramble

We then began our descent into San Francisco and landed shortly. I spent the next couple minutes talking with The flight crew, thanked them for their amazing service, and deboarded.

Overall, Cathay Pacific’s first class lives up to the hype. Although their seats are not the most groundbreaking, what stands out is the level of sophistication and elegance at every turn. The service was top notch and you can easily tell they paid attention to the minor details.

*If you’re interested in earning flight miles or credit card points, check out my other article 3 No-Brainer Credit Cards Everyone Must Have in Their Wallet.

(C) The points guy

Official Review: Chase Sapphire Reserve

Last week I reviewed the Top 3 No-Brainer Credit Cards Everyone Must Have in Their Wallet. For those travelers who enjoy the hotel life, Uber everywhere, and want to join the mile high club, I have added a new card to that list: the all new Chase Sapphire Reserve.


reserveChase Sapphire Reserve

For the longest time, the Chase Sapphire Preferred was the best travel credit card out there. When I heard about the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I thought it was too good to be true. You get 100,000 points after you spend $4000 in the first 3 months (worth $2100 with Chase Ultimate Rewards®), $300 annual travel credit automatically applied to your account after each travel expense, $100 reimbursement for your Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® application, access to 900+ airport lounges worldwide, and 3X points on Hotels, Flights, Taxis (Ubers, Lyfts), Restaurants, and any other travel related expenses.

The card does have a $450 annual fee, but the $300 travel credit alone brings that cost down to $150 a year, assuming you don’t take advantage of the $100 Global Entry or TSA Pre✓® reimbursement. As always, there are no foreign transaction fees, no blackout dates, no travel restrictions. I’ve booked numerous hotels and flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards and have never had a problem.

I use the Reserve card to buy my flights, book hotels, pay for food, and is my default card on Uber and Lyft. Bonus points if you link your Uber account to your SPG account as well! I’d been a loyal fan of the Chase Sapphire Preferred for many years, but the Chase has hit it out of the ballpark with the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Whether you’re a traveler or not, the Chase Sapphire Reserve‘s signup bonus alone more than pays for the card, and is a no-brainer card to have in your wallet!

You can check out a great review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card at ThePointsGuy.com.

3 No-Brainer Credit Cards Everyone Must Have in Their Wallet

I’ve been asked by numerous people time and time again what credit card they should get next, so I’ve decided to compile a list of the 3 credit cards I have in my wallet and why it’s a no brainer to get these cards! As a disclaimer, I may receive compensation when you click on links to these products. Everything in this post is of my sole opinion.

As a background, I’ve spent the past 2 years analyzing, double checking, and cross-referencing the top credit cards out there. As a consultant, I’ve analyzed loyalty cards for airlines (American, United, Southwest, Delta), hotels (Marriott, SPG, Hilton), and bank credit cards (Chase Sapphire Preferred, Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, Citi Double Cash Back), and more. After reviewing each credit card, I’ve narrowed it down to the following 3 credit cards that I carry in my wallet today:

  1. Chase Sapphire Preferred
  2. Chase Freedom
  3. Chase Freedom Unlimited

Check back next week for a thorough review of the new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. Now let’s get started!


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Chase Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best overall credit card out there. It’s marketed as a travel credit card, but if you’re eating out and ubering around the city, this card more than pays for itself. If you’re a recent grad or a college student, the majority of your expenses will be on transportation or dining. Even bars that sell food are considered dining and many are eligible for the 2x points. I’ve had this card for almost 2 years and redeemed over $2000 worth of points through just this card. I’ve booked a round-trip flight to New York, redeemed $1000 for a 4-night stay at the JW Marriot in San Francisco, and even redeemed for special events in any city, including the Hunger Games Exhibition in San Francisco.

You get 50,000 points after you spend $4000 in the first 3 months (worth $625 with Chase Ultimate Rewards®) and 2X points on Hotels, Flights, Taxis (Ubers, Lyfts), Restaurants, and any other travel related expenses. You also get access to Chase Ultimate Rewards, allowing you to redeem 25% value in points. At just $95 a year, this card is a no-brainer. As always, there are no foreign transaction fees, no blackout dates, no travel restrictions. I’ve booked numerous hotels and flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards and have never had a problem.

Whether you’re a traveler or not, the Chase Sapphire Preferred signup bonus alone more than pays for the card and is a no-brainer card to have in your wallet! To all of you post-grads and college students out there, this is the card for you!

You can check out a great review of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card at ThePointsGuy.com.

*I have also started checking out the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Check out my post next week for a thorough review.


freedomChase Freedom

The Chase Freedom credit card has been my oldest card. With no annual fee and the easiest credit card to attain with good credit, it was a no-brainer. You earn $150 after spending $300 in the first 3 months and earn up to 5% on combined purchases (up to $1500) in specific bonus categories that you activate each quarter. These categories include restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and wholesale clubs. Who doesn’t love getting an extra 5% at the gas station or on your next meal?

What makes this card a no-brainer is that it costs no annual fee and you use it only on bonus category expenses. Want more… transfer these points to your Chase Sapphire Reserve account to redeem points at a 50% bonus and transfer points 1:1 to Chase partners, included United and American, and even Southwest.

Pair this card with the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Freedom Unlimited, and you’ll have a perfect House of Cards.

Find out more about the Chase Freedom card at ThePointsGuy.com


freedom-unlimited

Chase Freedom Unlimited

When the Chase Freedom Unlimited card was announced a few months ago, I didn’t think much of it. At just 1.5 points per $1 spent on every purchase, it’s not the most valuable card out there with no annual fee. But after analyzing my expenses on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, I realized that I’d only been earning 1 point on over half of my monthly expenses. Grocery stores, gas stations, and drug stores are just a few places where the Chase Freedom Unlimited Card shines!

The Chase Freedom Unlimited card is currently offering $150 after you spend $500 in the first 3 months and has no annual fee. For every dollar you spend on the card, you get 1.5 points, simple enough, but here is where the card becomes truly powerful. You can transfer points from your Freedom Unlimited to your Chase Sapphire Reserve account. This allows you to redeem points at a 50% bonus, and transfer points to partners including United and American 1 for 1.

I’ve had numerous times where I found flights on United for far fewer points than Chase. With just 2 clicks, I can transfer my points to my United MileagePlus account, and BAM!!! Flights booked!

Combine this card with your Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Freedom, and you’re golden!

Find out more about the Chase Freedom Unlimited card at ThePointsGuy.com


There are numerous great credit cards out there. These are just a few that I’ve chosen to carry with me. Depending on your traveling lifestyle and spending habits, certain cards may be better than others, for example, getting the Marriott Rewards Credit Card if you’re a loyal Marriott Member, or getting the United MileagePlus card if you solely fly United. Have I missed any credit cards? Do you have a different opinion? Let me know what you think in the comments below.