I wanted to share an extra post today given the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces last night.  This has brought up a lot of emotion for me.

For those of you who don’t know, I was working out of town on a project in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.  That is a day that I will never forget.

I had a standing meeting at 9 AM with out client.  On my way to the meeting, one of my coworkers told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  Thinking that it was touring plane, I said, “How can a plane miss the World Trade Center?  It’s huge.”  When I got to the conference room, the TV was on, and I saw the footage of the first plane hitting the tower.  We knew this was no accident.  However, there was work to be done and the client manager asked that we turn off the TV because we had work to do.

Near the end of the meeting, one of the clients came into the room and told us that the Pentagon was hit and that we were evacuating the building.  We all walked over to an office that overlooked the Pentagon and we could see the smoke bellowing up from the crash site.  It was surreal.  I was ready to just walk out of the building right then.  One of my coworkers was with me and reminded me that some of the other people from our company may not know that the building was being evacuated and we should probably let them know.

So we went back to our desks and told the other consultants that the Pentagon was hit and we were evacuating the building.  The news of the evacuation obviously hadn’t made it around to everyone because a different client manager came up to us and said, “Who’s in charge of you people?  We are not evacuating the building.”  Our most senior person on site that day said, “I don’t know what you’re doing with your people, but if mine want to leave, they can.”  I can’t tell you how much it meant to us that he stuck up for us, since some of my coworkers had friends and family working at the Pentagon.

We were now getting reports that the Vice President’s office was bombed.  Our phone lines weren’t working and I wanted to get a message to my husband before I left.  Luckily the internet was still up.  I sent a quick message hoping to reassure him, but because it was so rushed and talked about the report of the bomb, it just made him more worried.

Traffic in D.C. was at a stand-still.  You could literally walk faster than you could drive.  Since I had an apartment downtown, I invited the other consultants to my apartment until traffic cleared.  As we were walking over, I began to wonder if it was the best idea to go to my apartment.  I lived across the street from the FBI building and on a direct path between the Capitol Building and the White House.

When we got to my apartment, we put on the news.  While watching the news, my roommate got a call from her family.  The man who would have been her future brother-in-law was in the World Trade Center on a floor above 100.  He normally didn’t work at the World Trade Center; he was there for a meeting that day.  I believe he knew he wasn’t going to survive.  He made calls to his family to tell them how much he loved them.  We watched as the towers fell and tried to console my roommate, hoping that by some miracle her brother-in-law made it out.  We later learned that he did not.

That night in D.C. was eerie.  No one was around; the streets were empty.  The people from my project who lived downtown, wanting not to be alone, decided to go out together to get some food.  The only place we could find open was a restaurant at one of the near-by hotels.  As we walked over to it, the only thing we could hear were fighter jets circling the city.

My husband obviously wanted me to leave D.C. permanently.  I was on an out-of-town assignment which had me in D.C. Monday through Friday and home on the weekends.  Leaving the project would have meant quitting my job which for financial reasons, was not an option.  We luckily had 2 locations for the project – one in D.C. and one in Virginia.

The next morning was solemn.  I will never forget the walk to work.  It was like everyone was in a daze.  There was no talking, just glances of shared sorrow.  When I got to work, I asked the project to allow me to work in Virginia the rest of the week which they allowed me to do.

Since almost no flights were flying out of D.C. that week, I had to drive home for the weekend.  It was a long drive home and I listened to news reports the entire way.  I remember the feeling that the nation was closer; that all the petty differences we had didn’t matter anymore.

I am not happy that people lost their lives last night because I would never celebrate anyone losing their lives.  But I imagine that it brought some level of comfort to the families who lost loved ones on September 11th knowing that Bin Laden is not around to plan anymore attacks.

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Trip Planning

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I am a big time planner, especially when I’m traveling.  I like to know a lot about our destination before we go.  I try to plan out months in advance the big activities we want to do on the trip.  So how do I go about planning a trip?

  • Talk to people who live there or have been there – There is no reason to go in blind to a destination.  There is so much we can learn from other people.  If I know someone who lives in the location, I ask them for their suggestions on must see activities and tips on favorite restaurants.  If I know someone who went on vacation there, I ask them what the favorite thing they did was and what their best advice is.  I find that people who are tourists have different suggestions than a local would have and you can learn a lot from both.
  • Visit your library – I always stop by our library and pick up travel books.  Our library has a great selection with many books per location.  If I find a book that I really like, then I’ll got out and buy it.  I like getting the books because it gives me a starting point.  I find that there is so much information on the web; I like to focus my search before I start.
  • Search on the web – There are tons of web sites that give great information about travel destinations.  I try to find 2 – 3 really good sites for each location.  I create a folder in my internet browser Favorites, so I always have easy access to the sites.
  • Research on Trip Advisor – Before booking anything – hotel, activity, etc – I like to see what people on Trip Advisor have to say.  You can find great information that will improve the quality of your trip.

I will feature some of the trips that we’ve taken and how I planned for them.  And I’d also like to feature locations that either we’ve been to or would like to go to.  If you have any great tips for places you’ve been, let me know how you planned for the trip.  I’d love to share your tips with everyone.  And if you’re thining about taking a vacation and want some suggestions let me know.  I’ll write a blog about the location and how I would plan for it.

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My first trip on an airplane was a three point trip with my dad and one of my brothers.  We flew from Buffalo to Los Angeles to Seattle and back for a total of $287 each.  We had a layover in San Francisco on our leg between LA and Seattle.  That’s where I learned the art of bumping.

When we arrived at our gate for a 9:30 AM flight in San Francisco my dad let the gate agent know that if she needed volunteers to be bumped we were willing.  And it turned out, she did need volunteers.  For giving up our seats, we were each given a guaranteed seat on a 12:30 PM flight and a $150 travel voucher which could be used for a future flight (this was a long time ago, typical bumps are worth around $400 now).  Right after our initial flight left, she called my dad up and said that she could get us on an earlier flight.  So she gave us new boarding passes for the flight which was scheduled to leave at 10:30 AM.  We settled in to wait for the flight.  A short while later, she called my dad back up and let him know that the flight we had been rebooked on was now oversold.  She offered us another $150 travel voucher each and a guaranteed seat on the 12:30 PM.  We of course took it and did end up taking that flight.  We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to get $300 each in travel vouchers for flights that only cost us $287.

Here are a few tips if you want to try to get bumped:

  • Get to the airport early so you have a better chance of being near the top of the bump list.
  • Don’t wait for them to ask for volunteers; let the gate agent know that you are willing to be bumped.
  • Travel during busy times.  This depends on the location.  If you’re traveling to business locations, Mondays and Fridays are going to be busy.  If you’re traveling to vacation destination, weekends are the busiest.
  • Be nice to the gate agent.  Depending on how long it is to your next flight, you can ask for meal coupons, a flight upgrade, or hotel accommodations.
  • Don’t check baggage.  It makes transferring you to another flight easier because they don’t need to worry about moving your bags.

Scoring bumps can pay for future vacations.  It’s also a great way for people to get started in the travel game, especially if they are not interested in doing the credit card game.  There are people who spend weekends flying around the country with the sole intent of collecting vouchers from bumps.

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Credit Score Basics

If you’re going to play the credit card sign-up bonus game, you should understand how your credit score is calculated.  The actual calculation is proprietary, but there are general guidelines.  The credit score most institutions used is the FICO score which was developed by the Fair Isaacs Corporation.

Main Factors

  • Payment History (35%) – Are you paying your bills?  Are you paying them on time?  Financial institutions want to know if you’re going to pay them back.  They will look at your payment history to determine the likelihood of you paying them back (recent history being the most important).  Late payments will cause your score to go down.  Debts that went into collections are worse and bankruptcy is the worst.
  • Amount Owed (30%) – How much debt are you carrying and how close to your limits are you?  Your score won’t necessarily be lower if you have a lot of debt.  They are looking at ratios here.  How much of your available credit are you using?  If you’re carrying close to your limit, you are considered riskier and your score will be affected.
  • Length of Credit History (15%) – A long length of credit history gives financial institutions more information about how likely you are to pay.  This is why on a lot of blogs they will tell you to keep open some cards to let them age.  If you have a non-fee card that you’ve had for a long time, it is a good idea to keep that account open so your length of credit history remains high.
  • New Credit (10%) – This is definitely one aspect of the score that will be affected in some way by the credit card game.  Financial institutions are looking at how much new credit you’ve been applying for.  You’ll hear people use the term “hard pull” – that’s the term used for when a financial institution pulls your credit score.  (It’s different than if you were looking at your credit report.  If you’re looking at your credit report, your score is not affected.)  This is the part of the score that looks at hard pulls.
  • Types of Credit Used (10%) – Financial institutions want to see that you can juggle different kinds of credit – revolving, installment, etc.

Part of the reason I don’t think my credit score has been affected so much by the credit card game is that I didn’t have a lot of credit cards (really only 2) before I started.  So I would charge nearly all of my purchases on one card and I didn’t have a lot of available credit.  As a result, my percentage of available credit being used was higher than it is now.  I now have more available credit, so the percentage I am using is low.  Also I have never missed a payment, so I’ve never had anything go to a collections agency.  And I have never declared bankruptcy.

You’ll need to assess your situation to see if this is a good option for you to get inexpensive travel.

If you do want to use credit card sign-up bonuses as a means to travel, there are a few great options out there right now:

  • British Airways (Chase) – 100k sign-up bonus – 50k after first purchase, 50k after $2,500 spend within 3 months
  • American Airlines (Citicard) – Visa link, Amex link, Business Visa link 75k sign-up bonus after $1,500 spend within 6 months, no annual fee the first year.  Technically this offer has expired.  However, the link for the offer still works and people have reported success on Flyertalk.
  • Continental (Chase) – 50k sign-up bonus after first purchase, no annual fee the first year.  This card is great because it will be going away with the merger with United, so you have a limited time to get the card.
  • Hyatt (Chase) – 2 free nights at any Hyatt after first purchase, $75 annual fee (not waived the first year).
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My favorite non-travel deal sites

Although this blog is mostly about travel deals for families, I would also like to talk about other deals that I hear about and non-travel deal sites that I love.  There are 2 deal sites that I check every day – Slickdeals and Woot.  I absolutely love these 2 sites.

Slickdeals’ content is generated by its users.  People post deals that they found.  Most of the deals are for on-line stores, but they also have bricks and mortar deals.  Users then vote on the deal with a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  The deals that get a lot of thumbs up float up to the front page.  What’s great too is that people can comment on the deals and talk about how to make the deal even better.  I’ve gotten hit Disney blu-ray combo packs for as little as $6 using information from Slickdeals.  This is usually through a combination of store promotions combined with Disney coupons.  When I see amazing deals posted on Slickdeals, I’ll post them to this site.

Woot is actually a combination of 5 sites – Woot, Kids Woot, Shirt Woot, Wine Woot, and Sellout Woot.  Woot typically sells electronic items.  Kids Woot sells items that kids would like.  Those are the ones I generally check.  You can buy up to 3 of them items they are selling and shipping is always $5 (whether you’re buying 1 or 3).  I love getting items on this site especially for birthday presents.  I have 2 boys who have lots of birthday parties to attend every year.  I buy items from Kids Woot or deals I find on slickdeals.  I keep them in a closet in our house.  And when the kids have a party to attend, I have them pick something out from the closet.

Occasionally, you will see lights flashing on the Woot site.  They do that to let you know they are having a woot-off.  A woot-off is a day when they are selling more than one item.  They have one item up at a time.  When an item runs out, a new item goes up and so on.

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