Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Free round trip flight to Vancouver, Canada

Picture taken from National Geographic here
With one of my friends getting married soon, I needed to book a short notice flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Vancouver (YVR) with our group of buddies for the guys trip next month.   

At the time of booking, the flights the group wanted to take cost around $308 for economy class.  While $308 isn’t too much of a cost for travel, I prefer to pay $0.  Since ticket prices fluctuate daily and ticket prices often go up as travel dates get closer (it’s now $371 to book the same flight), I searched for award travel flights right away.

When I checked United airlines, I found that I could not book the same flight as my friends.  Also it would have cost 25,000 miles each way for a total of 50,000 miles for a round trip flight.  Not a good redemption of points.

My friend then reminded me that I could book flights directly from the Chase Ultimate Rewards website.  I logged in to, then clicked on Explore and Book Travel:

Luckily, I was able to book the exact same flight(s) as my friends.  Flying to Vancouver (YVR) from Los Angeles (LAX) cost 10,502 points total (tax and fuel charges included).  
Flying home to Los Angeles from Vancouver cost 12,426 points total.  
Total Chase Ultimate Rewards points used: 22,928.  The Ultimate Rewards website tells me I saved $286.61 by booking with points instead of cash.  This puts the value of my points redeemed at 1.25 cents per point.

I know I’ve shared that I’ve recently switched to cash back credit cards for most normal purchases, but it’s really nice to have some points on hand to save money on the costs of travel.  Booking through Ultimate Rewards is extremely fast and easy, and does not require transferring any points to travel partners.  Best of all, travel costs are covered by points; there are no extra fuel charges or taxes to pay.  

Note: In my experience, booking travel through Ultimate Rewards is not the best use of points, especially when flying internationally.  In this case it worked out for me.  However, Chase Ultimate Rewards points are usually more valuable when converted to airline miles through Chase Travel partners such as United Airlines. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Scuba diving in Okinawa, Japan

The variety of coral reefs and sea creatures make Okinawa one of the best places to scuba dive.  With water temperature ranging between 70 to 86 degrees, you can scuba dive all year long.  My wife and I met up with a friend in Taiwan who joined us for our Okinawa visit.  The day after we landed in Okinawa, my friend and I set out to scuba dive around Okinawa.  We went diving on two separate occasions.    

We first booked a 3-tank dive with Reef Encounters for 22,500 Yen ($190).  Originally we wanted to go to the Kerama Islands, and area of exceptional diving.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was very poor on this day: It was windy, there wasn’t much sun, and it was very cold. 

Our dive master took us to dive around Motobu instead.  Here we dove around various coral reefs and rock structures.  

Can you find the Cuttle Fish?

Because of poor weather, the underwater visibility wasn’t ideal.  While the diving wasn’t ideal, we still got a chance to see many beautiful sea creatures and coral formations.  In retrospect, we probably should have rescheduled our first dive for another day with better weather conditions. 

A few days later, my friend and I booked a one-tank whale shark dive with Top Marine Japan.  It cost 15,600 Yen ($131) for each of us. 

Whale sharks are the largest fish on Earth.  Their lengths can measure over 40 feet long.  They can weigh more than 21.5 metric tons (47,000 lbs.).  It is estimated that these beautiful fish can live up to 70 to 100 years long.  Although these sharks look extremely intimidating, they are very docile and feed only on plankton and very small fish.  A female whale shark can give birth to over 300 babies at a time.  Like mammals, the whale shark gives live birth, however the baby sharks are hatched from eggs inside the mother.

As I understand, local fisherman in Okinawa’s warm waters commonly catch whale sharks in their nets.  These whale sharks are then placed into large net enclosures in the open ocean to recover.  The whale sharks are fed regularly, studied, and held for a short amount of time before they are released.  Some whale sharks are released to the Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa while most are released back into the ocean. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Din Tai Fung lunch at Taipei 101

When we visited Taipei last year, we had a chance to visit and eat at the original Din Tai Fung.  This year, we decided to try out the restaurant located at Taipei 101.  Prior to 2010, Taipei 101 held the record for the world’s tallest building.  This building is made up of 101 above ground floors and 5 floors underground.  Businesses take up most of the levels of the tower, however it is connected to a multi-level shopping center with hundreds of high-end stores and restaurants.  We didn’t come here to shop however, just to grab lunch.

Anyone who has ever been to a Din Tai Fung restaurant (originating in Taiwan, but also located in U.S., Australia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand) knows that they make the best xiaolongbao, or juicy pork dumplings.  These small steamed dumplings are filled with soup and are incredibly tasty and delicious.  You dip each dumpling into a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, and ginger before gobbling it up.  An open window allows you to see all the dumplings freshly prepared by hand.  Din Tai Fung also offers various other dumplings filled with pork, chicken, crab, shrimp, and vegetables.  They offer various noodle and rice dishes as well as vegetables and soup.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Switching to cash back credit cards, for now

I’ve written before about how valuable credit card points and miles can be, often times worth 1.5 to 2.5 cents per point versus redeeming points for cash back at 1 point = 1 cent.

Points and miles have taken the two of us all over the world including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Mexico, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan as well as several states in America.  We’ve even had the chance to experience a first class international flight together!  By using our points and miles towards travel (flights, hotel stays, and even a cruise), we’ve been able to save a ton of money.  Travel can be expensive; points and miles can greatly reduce your expenses and allow you to use your money towards entertainment and dining instead.  Not only are points and miles more valuable than cash back, redeeming them for travel is much more exciting.  Getting cash back is boring. 

With a baby on the way and a surplus of Ultimate Rewards points, we have been switching a lot of our spending to cash back credit cards lately.  I don’t see any big travel expenses in our near future.  There won’t be any immediate need to stay at any hotels.  I never recommend hoarding points and miles, because you never know when a travel rewards program or airline will devalue the point currency.  This being said, it is good to have some points and miles saved up in case of emergencies.  If a last minute travel need comes up, it’s nice to know that we can cover almost any flight with the miles we have. 

My favorite cash back credit cards
Today I’m going to share with you the cash back cards that we have been using.  Before reading on, make sure you have absolutely NO existing credit card debt.  There’s no point in earning any cash back, miles, or points if you ever carry a credit card balance.  The interest on this borrowed money negates any value you can gain from credit card rewards.  If you have any credit card debt, stop reading further, and handle your debt.  This post is not for you.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Our experience in Hualien, Taiwan

After leaving Tokyo, we flew to Taiwan to spend a few days with my father.  One of the places we first went to visit was Hualien. 

Hualien is located on the mountainous eastern coast of Taiwan.  Most of the area is made up of mountains and rivers.  I learned on Wikipedia that Hualien County occupies about one eighth of the total area of Taiwan.  Mountains occupy 87% of the area, rivers occupy 7%, and people occupy only 7% of the county area.  We met up with my father in Taiwan and the three of us took the high speed rail from Taipei to Hualien.  Once we arrived in the city, we rented a car to explore the area. 

We stopped by and explored the Chihsing Tan Katsuo Museum, an old Japanese dried bonito fish factory.  This 3-story museum tells the history of how katsuobushi (dried bonito fish flakes) was made in the fishing village in earlier times. 

Making katsuobushi is a time consuming process that can take up to a month.  The bonito fish is first filleted and simmered for up to 1.5 hours.   Filets are then deboned and smoked for up to 6 hours, over and over again up to 15 times.  Then the filets are dried for up to 2 weeks with mold used to ferment the fish.  As the mold gets scraped off and the fish gets sun dried – it now resembles a block of wood.  Finally, the dried filets are sliced into shavings used in food as flavoring, stuffing, or topping.  At the gift shop we got to sample over 30 different types of katsuobushi with rice - very tasty. 

We then drove to Chishingtan Beach, where we walked around the rock beach and took in some very lovely views of the ocean.  It was interesting to walk upon a rocky shore instead of a sandy beach.   

Sunday, February 1, 2015

January side hustles 2015

The great thing about doing side hustles to generate extra income is that you can hustle on your own terms.  The more hard work, time, and creative effort you put in, the more extra money you can make.  You can hustle as little or as much as you want, whenever you want.  It’s your extra money, and you can choose how you want to spend it.  Instead of focusing on what ideas don’t apply to you, try focusing on different side hustle ideas that you can implement to work for your situation.

Welcome to February, the start of another brand new month!  Are you watching the Superbowl this afternoon?  Now that January has ended, have you been starting this year off right?

2014 was a great year of relentless improvement of our finances. Together we have managed to save 40% of our take home income.  We could have done better, but we did a fair amount of splurging. 

Saving money is a hot topic around the office these days.  Seems like there are a lot more people bringing their own lunch.  Maybe my consistency in bringing lunch to work has set a good example for others?  When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, saving more money is a big one. 

One easy way to save more money is to do some hustling on the side.  There is a limit to how much money you can save (frugality only goes so far), but there are no limits to how much money you can make.

Here’s our monthly summary of side income that we have generated in the month of January.
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