Wednesday, October 31, 2012

$25 cashback for buying a $100 Costco gift card with your American Express card

As part of their Link-Like-Love campaign, American Express is offering $25 cashback for spending $100 at Costco, which includes the purchase of gift cards.  All you have to do is sync your Amex card with Amex's official app on either Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare and "register" (on Facebook, "Like") for the appropriate Costco promotion.  Then spend your $100 at Costco and Amex will issue you a $25 statement credit, usually within a week from your date of purchase.  For more information and the actual step-by-step process, check out dealswelike's post.
You can churn this offer if you have multiple Amex cards, but you'll also need multiple social networking accounts as only one Amex card can be registered per social networking account.  That being said, take full advantage of this offer as Amex is basically giving you $25 for free for every Amex card that you have, and Costco gift cards are arguably the best and most flexible gift card currency on the market.  Of course, your purchases at Costco aren't limited to gift cards, so feel free to buy a new camera or your Thanksgiving dinner there.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Today only: American Express Business Gold Rewards card with 75k sign-up bonus

Sorry for being late in posting this deal because it's 1-day only.  Amex is offering a 75k sign-up bonus for their Business Gold Rewards card with a minimum of $10,000 in spending within the first 4 months of card membership.  Amex's Membership Rewards program is arguably the best credit card reward programs out there with their tremendous flexibility in point redemptions and countless partners.  For more info, check out The Points Guy's post.
Things to note about the card:
-3X points on airfare, 2X on U.S.-based advertising, gasoline, and shipping, and 1X for all other purchases
-$175 annual fee waived for the first year
-Amex's unparalleled purchase protection benefits

This is easily the best credit card sign-up bonus out there right now.  Too bad it'll only last for a couple of more hours.  Amex has been known to release this offer for 1-day only bimonthly, so if you miss out on this one, you'll likely get another chance, albeit for 24 hours.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Travels in Nagoya

I was given the opportunity to experience Nagoya for a couple of days last week for Japan's "Health and Sports Day" holiday.  As the third largest city in Japan, Nagoya boasts a wealth of traditional Japanese architecture and national attractions.  Nonstop roundtrip flight from Sapporo to Nagoya cost a measly 9,000 British Airways Avios points, which is perhaps the best redemption value possible as fares regularly run in excess of $800 USD.
 The first one on the plane as a One World Emerald member.  Too bad I could only land a middle seat.
Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium
Located at the mouth of the Port of Nagoya, the aquarium houses one of the largest displays of marine mammals in Japan.  Three orcas share a pool too small for even a single orca calf to be happy in.
Better in a small tank than on your daughter's school lunch menu.
The bottlenose dolphins are given a much larger tank in the Main Pool stadium.  However, the non-performers are permanently stationed in their miniature hideouts.  The Pacific white-sided dolphins are given entry to the stadium at showtime, but are forced to retreat to their hideout at show's end.

The dolphin show featured some nice stunts, but was on the shorter side.  Surprisingly, the trainers didn't enter the water with the dolphins, which is a practice even the Osaka Aquarium performs despite not even having a dolphin show.  The rest of the aquarium featured sea turtles, penguins, belugas, tuna, sharks, and the like.  Not bad for a discounted 1,800 yen with the all-day subway pass.

Nagoya Castle
Nagoya is one of the few Japanese cities that boasts a full-scale castle that once belonged to a shogun.  However, the actual castle built in 1610 was destroyed by the U.S. Air Force during World War II, so today's standing structure is a rebuilt version.

The Japanese government and the city of Nagoya did a formidable job in rebuilding the national treasure.  However, the refurbished structure will never be as good as the original, and the interior has been modified into a museum, thus ignoring much of the traditional rooms and weapons storage that once stood.

Despite its elegant appearance, Himeji Castle in Kyoto, with its undamaged original design and interior, definitely leads Nagoya Castle by a landslide.  The U.S. Air Force definitely left an internal scar here in Nagoya's treasured heritage.

Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology
Nagoya is the birthplace of Toyota Motor Corp., the largest automobile company in the world in terms of annual production.  The Toyota Commemorative Museum was the actual headquarters of Toyoda Spinning & Weaving Co., where Sakichi Toyoda pioneered the textile machinery industry that paved way to the most successful car company in the world.  The museum featured a vast array of textile machinery followed by Toyota's storied automobile history and modern production lines.
Since the museum is owned and operated by Toyota Motor Corp., demos with live personnel as well as interactive machinery abounded.  On the other hand, Nagoya Castle lacked both due to their meager government funding.

Although Nagoya can't compare to Tokyo's nightlife or Kansai's national treasures, the city still houses a good blend of attractions and cultural heritage that should not be missed.  The subways are crowded, but they're nothing like Tokyo's, where you fight for ever square millimeter during rush hour.  And the subway system has extensive coverage and convenient running times, unlike Sapporo, where it's the luck of the draw.  Oh, and the food is good too.
Handmade kishimen noodles, Nagoya's famed staple food source

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Southwest offering 40% discount through Thursday, other airlines matching

You are now free to move about the country, because Southwest is offering a 40% discount code for travel from Nov. 28 through Dec. 12, 2012, and Jan. 7 through Feb. 14, 2013.  Booking must be completed by 11:59 pm PT on Oct. 11, 2012 with promo code BigDeal40, so book now.  Full terms and conditions are available on the promo page.  The best thing is that other carriers have seemingly matched the deal.  So go to Google's Matrix Airfare Search to see if your desired flights have been matched by any of the other carriers.  All U.S. carriers (including Southwest) are required by law to include a free 24-hour cancellation or airfare hold policy for their bookings, so you can always purchase/hold the fare for now and cancel within 24 hours if you change your mind.
Wanna get away?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

5 things to love about Japan

In my previous installment, I exposed of all Japan's serious shortcomings that require immediate attention.  In this second and final installment, I'll bring out all the good news on how Japan is one of the world's premier countries.  So now that you've heard my rough criticism, it's time for the good news on the 5 things to absolutely love about Japan:

1. Food
Sushi and sashimi.  Need I say anymore?  Yes: ramen, udon, soba, tempura, okonomiyaki, yakitori, etc.  The list goes on and on as Japanese cuisine is easily the most unique and delectable in the world.  People around the globe flock to this country to get a taste of Japan's renowned delicacies.  Tokyo alone boasts a total of 17 Michelin 3-starred restaurants, the holy grail ranking of fine dining.  To put that into perspective, the entire U.S. only has 10.
Master Jiro Ono, the best sushi chef in the world and owner of the famed Michelin 3-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant in Tokyo, completes a masterpiece tuna nigiri.
2. The best public transportation system in the world
Tokyo to Osaka (350 miles) in 2 1/2 hours.  Missed your train?  The next one to Osaka departs in 7 minutes.  Japan invented the high-speed Shinkansen (aka Bullet Train) nearly half a century ago with a "pedestrian" speed of 130 mph, a feat that the U.S. has yet to come close to attaining even to this day.  Japan Railway (JR) has since improved the Shinkansen's speed to 186 mph with plans to reach 200 mph in the near future.  And no matter where you are, the JR has you covered.  Add that to the most comprehensive intercity subway and bus system in the world and you get public transit that's second to none.  Car ownership is so American and so unnecessary.
JR's legendary Shinkansen lineup: the most advanced high-speed train system in the world.
3. Healthcare
Ever get sick but decide against seeing the doctor to avoid monumental wait times while paying outrageous fees?  Not a problem in Japan, where 1,920 yen (~$24.40 USD) per month gets you universal healthcare with 70% coverage for nearly all visits.  Getting my teeth checked and cleaned came out to a measly $15 USD and the follow-up check was an astounding $3.95.  And that's after a 10-minute wait time.  Dermatologist with cryogenic operation and orthopedic doctor with ankle cast molding cost a whooping $15 and $46, respectively.  Japan is a good place to get sick, if you must.
Welcoming smiles aren't exclusive to the hospital.
4. Service
Smiles and warm welcomings.  Japan is a service-oriented country where the customer actually comes first.  It's a tradition that flows through their blood, from restaurants to hotels and airlines.  Although the employees' attitudes are often superficial, their smiles and constant willingness to help end up bringing a smile to your face after a long difficult day of working in the office.  If American waitresses held these kinds of attitudes, I'd be inclined to up my gratuity to 25%.  Oh, and gratuities are not accepted in Japan, so the price of your selected meal is also the price out the door.
Even Hello Kitty bows for you.
5. Safety
If you're 6 years old, never walk out alone at night in Japan, unless you want to go somewhere within walking distance.  Because you're better off taking the convenient subway, where your ticket is half price.  Japan is the only country in the world where felons willingly turn themselves in to the police.  You're more likely to get stuck by lightning on a clear day than to get kidnapped on your way to school.  Crime just isn't part of the Japanese culture, where the letter of the law is followed intensively.  So who commits all those ultra-rare crimes?  Japan likes to call them foreigners.

As with living in any country, there are countless pros and cons.  The best way for a foreigner to live out life in Japan is to always take the bitter with the better.  So before you criticize their staunch obedience to the law, remember that your 6-year-old daughter can safely walk back from school every night or take the subway for half price.  And when you sink your teeth into that sashimi, all your gripes about your boss being your king outside of work seemingly fly out the door.  It's a nation to be reckoned with, and in light of all their shortcomings, Japan still boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Easy fastrack to Star Alliance Silver or Gold status

Aegean Airlines, a Star Alliance member and Greece's largest carrier, is offering a free 2,000-mile sign-up bonus for their frequent flyer program, Miles&Bonus.  The 2k bonus miles count towards elite status, and Blue Card status (Star Alliance Silver) can be attained by earning only 2k more miles (4k total miles) by flying on any Star Alliance carrier.  So why is this big?  First off, you'll need over 12 times that many miles (25k) to earn equivalent status with United, and Star Alliance Silver gets you 1 free checked bag on United, US Airways, and Air Canada as well as priority check-in, expedited security line, and early boarding.  Star Alliance Gold, where the real benefits kick in (see below), can be attained by flying on an additional 18k miles (20k total).  What's truly amazing is that elite status with Aegean is lifetime as long as you credit miles to your account at least once every 3 years, which even the rarest leisure traveler should have no problem accomplishing.
Star Alliance, the largest airline alliance in the world, is home to United, US Airways, Air Canada, ANA, Singapore Airlines, and 23 other major international carriers.  One of the benefits to flying with a Star Alliance carrier is alliance-wide status recognition.  For example, if you attain Star Alliance Gold status with Aegean by earning 18k miles, you'll be recognized when flying with the rest of the carriers with benefits that include the following:
  • Airport Lounge Access - available worldwide for you and a friend when you travel with any Star Alliance member airline, regardless of your class of travel.
  • Priority Airport Check-in - allows you to check-in at the Business and/or First Class counter.
  • Priority Boarding - enjoy the freedom of boarding at your convenience along with First and Business Class passengers.
  • Extra Baggage Allowance - an additional 20 kg (44 pounds) where the weight concept applies, or one additional piece of luggage where the piece concept applies.
  • Priority Baggage Handling - like you, your bags get priority treatment and are among the first to be unloaded.
  • Priority Reservations Waitlisting - when there aren't any seats left on your preferred flight, gives you priority should a seat become available.
  • Priority Airport Standby - gives you top priority when standing-by a flight at the airport.
For more info, including advice on how to earn Star Alliance Silver and Gold status with Aegean as well as key benefits and limitations, check out New Girl in the Air's post or comment below.

Monday, October 1, 2012

5 things that Japan needs to improve on (aka what I hate about Japan)

In commemoration of reaching my 6-month anniversary here in Japan, I have decided to produce a dual installment on the bests and worsts of Japan.  Having lived here for half a year, I felt it necessary to expose the inherent strengths and weaknesses of this venerable country.  Bad news should always come before the good news, so here are the 5 areas that Japan desperately needs to improve on (aka what I hate about Japan) along with my justifications:

1. Hierarchy reigns like a monarchy
"All men are created equal" will always be the motto of America's treasured heritage initiated by our revered Founding Fathers.  It has been replicated around the world by perhaps every first world country with the single exception of Japan.  In Japan, status reigns supreme.  Your boss at work is your king, whether you're at work, at home on your Playstation 3, or at the year-end party.  And you want to leave work early because you're done?  Too bad, your boss is still here.  Arrive at work after he does or leave before he does and you're scorned as a disloyal and lazy servant.
Emporer Akihito ain't your only king in Japan.  Your office boss can be even more powerful.
2. Treatment of women
Equal-opportunity is a misnomer in Japan, where PhD women sit at home as housewives, serving their male  Don't expect to keep your job after you've conceived, as the culture of Japan now establishes you solely as a caretaker.  Oh, and what does your husband do after work?  You guessed it, all that overtime pay went into sleeping with hookers.  And there's nothing you can do about it but stay at home and be a faithful housewife.

3. Indirect connotations and poker faces
"That will be difficult" and "I'm not sure about that" mean a blatant "no".  You'll never know what's really on their mind because they don't express it.  There's a reason why those ANA and JAL flight attendants are the nicest on the planet.  Those service employees are incapable of frowning. What your heart believes is never shown by what you say, unless it's positive, and even that's exaggerated.
Love those smiles!  Deep down inside, they're sick and tired of all my constant food and alcohol requests.
4. The utter enforcement of the letter of the law
Japan is a society based upon the complete submission to any and all rules.  Whereas this practice has led to one of the lowest crime rates in the world, it has also disemboweled the slightest bit of common sense when it comes to accounting.  You're the only guest at the hotel and you want to checkout at 11 am?  Sorry, rules specifically state that the checkout deadline is at 10 am, so get out or face a severe additional service charge.  Want to transfer funds from your Japan bank account to a U.S. account so that your equity can be accessed in the States?  Not a good enough reason; transfer denied.  But your mom in California needs money!  Mmmm, according to the rulebook, that's a valid reason; transfer approved.  I don't want onions in my burger . . . sorry, the cookbook says that the chef needs to include them.
Even Calvin knows when the spirit of the law applies.
5. Pride of the culture
Nothing wrong with being proud of your country, but everybody makes mistakes, and that includes even Japan.  After over 70 years, the Japanese government still denies their country's involvement in the Nanking Massacre (aka the Rape of Nanking).  Whaling is unethical and bluefin tuna are on the brink of extinction, but these endangered species continue to fall in mass quantities at the hands of the Japanese fishing fleet due to their culture, which takes precedence over all rationality.  Japanese people are arguably the most proud of all nationalities,  so sacrificing the smallest bit of their culture is completely unacceptable.  Being Christian means being "unJapanese", which serves to explain the country's sadly low 0.5% Christian base.
The Nanking Massacre was an absolute myth.  This picture?  It must be Photoshopped.
Bottom line
Japan has much to work on.  From unfair treatment to utter denial of previous wrongdoing, Japan often embodies the attitude of a 6-year-old spoiled brat.  But, as you'll see in my next installment, the worst can occasionally lead to being the best.  What do you think?  Am I missing anything or am I being way too harsh?