How to road trip to Canada since the lifting of Covid travel restrictions

Last month we returned from a nearly two week road trip to Canada as tourists. We entered on August 9, the first day Americans were allowed into Canada for tourism and without quarantine. Travelers from the rest of the world will be allowed in under the same conditions starting on September 9.

This post will be about the process for entry, what we experienced while there, and the experience coming back. 

Before we left

Canada allows for a waiver to its post-arrival testing and quarantine requirements if arrivals:

  • Are fully vaccinated by a Canada-approved vaccine
  • Have waited 14 days since final shot
  • Have completed and received a negative PCR test within 3 days of entry and have the results in hand

All vaccines given in the US are in Canada’s approved list, though the Russian and Chinese vaccines given to some in México and elsewhere are not. 

So on a Friday afternoon, in preparation for our Monday departure to Canada, we each took a PCR test. Results were expected back within 24 hours, while ours arrived a bit slower, but still by the end of the following day. 

In preparation for arrival we downloaded the ArriveCAN app on our phones and entered all our vaccination and arrival information, including photos of our vaccination cards, time of arrival, and port of entry. We crossed in the small city of Ogdensburg, NY after checking wait times. Once we arrived to the front of the line, we handed our confirmation code and paper copies of our negative PCR tests to the border agent and we were on our way in less than 5 minutes. 

The only glitch in this process was that since it requires date of arrival, you have to fill out at least part of the form en route and some of the vaccination data we had previously entered didn’t save between sessions and had to be reentered.

Note: Some border crossings that were formerly 24 hours have been closed after 8pm or earlier. To avoid issues at off-hours, cross at larger ports of entry and check hours before departing.

In Canada

Traveling around Canada was nearly identical to a summer US road trip (besides the road signs being in kilometers). The standard Covid-related policies in New York are on display in Canada, namely contact information when dining-in and timed entry for museums. Now that New York City is requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining, Canada is actually more lax. Some restaurants in Montreal still had restrictions on indoor dining but there was plenty of outdoor dining space.

I want to keep this short and on-topic, so I’ll follow up with a post on our itinerary later. Suffice to say we were not inconvenienced in any way during our trip and we even had the odd sensation of being the only non-locals in many of the places we visited.

Coming back

Returning to the US by land, you do not need to take a negative Covid test. This was such a confusing point to clarify that I even called US Customs and Border Protection to verify. As of the date of this post, if you travel by air you do need to take a test within 3 days of returning, even if you are fully vaccinated.

Currently, only the following individuals are allowed to cross into the US by land:

  • US citizens and residents repatriating to the US, or
  • Those traveling for essential reasons

The following link lists the valid reasons for crossing the border by land.

On our way back into the US, we crossed in North Troy, a small town in northern Vermont. Given the sleepy crossing and that Americans are only allowed into the US by land as repatriation, we were questioned longer than normal by the border agent. We were likely the first tourists he had seen in over a year, so his caution made sense.

[Not] crossing the land border as a non-American

At the time of this post, foreigners or US visa holders are not currently allowed into the US by land for tourism (they are however allowed in by air). This has created a strange situation where Americans are allowed to drive into Canada for tourism or discretionary reasons, but the same is not true in the opposite direction. This means that if you are a foreigner working or visiting the US, you may be allowed into Canada but not back into the US if you return by land.

I hope this post will be useful to others that plan to visit Canada in the next few months and will save some others the hassle or confusion that we had during the planning of our trip. Safe travels!

A philosophy for hiking lighter

Ultralight hiking is a mix of enlightenment and consumerism. It is semi-philosophical, encouraging hikers to “carry less and travel farther”. Less weight on your back means more miles and more comfort. Through the power of round numbers and online bickering, the limit for “ultralight” has been set arbitrarily at 15 lbs of gear, prior to food and water, known as a base weight. This has been further revised down to 10 lbs, depending on who you ask.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of this base weight can turn into a shopping spree of replacing functional yet heavy gear with lighter items in order to reach that elusive threshold. This gear acquisition functions as a kind of stand-in for the fun of actual hiking or camping, since it’s done from your computer while sitting indoors.

My goal with this article is to lay out the most useful steps I found for reducing the weight of what you carry without getting into obsessive territory. These are my tips, in rough order of savings.

Weigh everything

First off, weigh everything that will go into your pack and log it. Lighterpack is a hugely popular site for building a library of camping gear and cataloguing it by weight and it’s also free. I know this sounds obsessive, but it is an indispensable way to see the “big picture” of everything you’re carrying. When replacing gear, it lets you easily see the potential impact to your back of trading up to something lighter.

Key tool: Lighterpack.com

Carry less water

When I realized that 16oz of water weighs (surprise!) one full pound, I started to question whether I couldn’t carry a bit less and gather it along the trail. That change in philosophy included buying a lightweight tubular Sawyer Squeeze water filter where I formerly relied on Iodophor iodine solution for all water treatment. This change allows me to carry 64 or 96 oz of water when I formerly carried around a gallon.

Key gear: Sawyer Squeeze water filter

Lose the boots

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that hiking boots are no longer the shoewear of choice on the Appalachian Trail. Nearly everyone going long-distance hiking now uses trail runners or hiking shoes, i.e. footwear with good tread and the weight of a running shoe. I suppose it was just following the crowd that made me never question boots before now, because I was definitely an early convert to ultralight running shoes back in highschool.

I bought a pair of Brooks Cascadia (1.6lb/pair) and dropped 2 lbs when compared to my old Timberland Pro Goretex-lined hikers (3.6lb/pair). The Cascadia have a solid tread and padded sole, though they rely on breathability to wick water rather than waterproof fabric. Even though I’m giving up the Goretex, there’s a good chance my feet will be similarly dry, since my heavy lined boots used to make me sweat.

Key gear: Trail running shoes

Lighten your pack

Given the amount of gear I used to carry, I loved my 80-liter Kelty Redcloud. Though once I weighed my gear, I realized I could save roughly 4 lbs by trading my trusty old Kelty (6.5 lbs) for a lighter backpack. I ended up choosing the ULA Circuit (2.5 lbs). The Circuit has a 65-liter capacity, which is more than enough for my slimmed-down gear profile.

The Circuit has a lighter belt and frame, though is functionally the same as the Kelty. There are many others like it. Lighter options exist without a hip belt or frame, similar to a large school backpack, but I like the weight distribution of a frame for food and water carries.

Key gear: Lighter backpack (sub-3lbs)

Switch to down

When I started on this quest to upgrade my gear, my number one wish for an upgrade was my sleeping bag. I had had my previous bag since my Scouting years and it was synthetic, of unclear warmth, and huge. Even as a kid I was jealous of the Scout Dads with their lofty down bags.

I traded up to a down sleeping bag, the lightest that I could find under $300, which at the time as the Marmot Hydrogen 30-degree bag. Many others that go ultralight end up with down quilts which are essenially zipperless sleeping bags that wrap around and attach to your pad. My Hydrogen is 800- or 850-fill down, which is a measure of loft. Higher is better and lighter per unit of warmth, the cheapest bags will use 650-fill while high-end ones will use 900 or 950.

My sleeping pad had been a Thermarest Ridgerest foam pad for as long as I have been camping. These pads are very light but also not very padded. For the sake of comfort, I traded up for a Thermarest self-inflating pad. It’s my one trade up in weight but also in comfort.

Key gear: Down sleeping bag

Pop a new tent

A tent is one of those nice items that can be split in half if you’re couples camping. For us that meant splitting up a Marmot tent weighing over 6lbs. At the point I was looking to replace the tent I was in full-on immersion into the r/Ultralight group and so decided I would try out the Durston X-Mid 2P sold on Drop.com. It offers a good balance of durability, weather protection, and space, all while coming in under $300.

The Durston tent weighs a hair over 2 lbs, for a savings of nearly 4 lbs, but there’s a catch: many long distance hiking tents are made to utilize hiking poles as the supports for the tent. I got mine from Fizan and they weigh in at 10 oz, which makes the tent package a bit closer to 3 lbs. These are just about the lightest poles that are still usable for hiking, though there is the option to buy a set of simple foldable tent poles, which would weigh 6-8 oz.

Key gear: Sub-3lb tent and trekking poles (if applicable)

Lighten your stove

As a former Scout, I grew up using Coleman stoves and lanterns. In fact, I still use them for car camping, I have the big green briefcase stove and the matching green lantern. For backpacking, I had the Coleman Peak One stove. This was all overkill for hiking.

Backpacking meals are mostly re-hydrating food, so what is needed is a simple way to boil water. Early in my upgrade process I purchased a butane-propane stove from Snow Peak which, even with its case, weighs only 4 oz. I paired it with the inexpensive Stanley Adventure cook set and nested it inside, using the locking lid to secure the stove inside the pot.

I’ve since learned that many hikers use an alcohol stove, wind screen, and titanium pot for even further weight savings, though the ease of my butane-propane canister and minimal weight savings means this upgrade will have to wait for another day.

Key gear: Isobutane canister or alcohol stove

Conclusion

In order to draw some comparisons between all this new gear, I made some rough estimates of cost, weight saved, and the price per pound saved:

Sleeping bag: ~2 lbs saved / $200 = $100/lb saved

Tent and poles: 4 lbs / $320 = $80/lb

Backpack: 4 lbs / $260 = $65/lb

Shoes: 2 lbs / $100 = $50/lb

Stove: ~1.1 lbs / $30 = $27/lb

Water: 2 lbs (32 oz) / $30 = $15/lb

Total: 15.1 lbs saved / $940

Among hikers there is often a lot of debate around the “Big 3” of tent, sleeping bag and pack and what to choose. Not surprisingly, in my exercise those were some of the biggest weight savings, though they were much less cost effective than upgrading my shoes, stove, and [carrying less] water.

Admittedly, I’m messing with the numbers a bit by assuming I would carry 32 oz less water if I used a filter on-trail, but this exercise is a good example in diminishing returns. Those smaller items requiring a change in approach saved more weight, per dollar, than fancy gear-focused purchases.

Norwegian Airlines adopts the Ryanair model

In September we took an impromptu trip to Ireland, partially to take advantage of the Labor Day weekend and to visit my aunt and uncle. The other factor was the price: $304 round-trip, per person, though it came with a catch: the flight was from Stewart Airport near Newburgh, NY, roughly 1.5 hours northwest of the city.

This is a change from the usual Norwegian Airlines flights from JFK. Norwegian generally has flights that are sold individually and cost from $150-300 each way. When we traveled to Europe last year, this is what allowed us to fly round-trip from NYC for around $530! We thought it couldn’t get any more affordable than that. We were wrong.

The Ryanair model

In flying from Stewart, Norwegian apparently has decided to adopt what I call the Ryanair model, which involves flying from a small, underutilized airport near a major city. Flying from a smaller airport allows for lower ticket prices, but then there’s the issue of getting there. My first experience of this strange trade-off was flying into Paris-Beauvais, which appeared to be a World War II-era airfield situated in the middle of a tiny village. Paris was nowhere to be seen. Luckily, Ryanair runs a shuttle service to the city.

In Europe, this model works because the history of wars throughout the 20th century has left the continent littered with military airfields. It has never been adopted to intercontinental travel, to my knowledge, until now.

Stewart Airport incidentally started its life during World War II as Stewart Army Airfield outside Newburgh, NY, the closest airfield to the US Military Academy at West Point.

Does it work? Yes.

Is it worth trekking to Upstate New York to save a few bucks on a flight? Well, I would say yes, for the following reasons:

  • It’s roughly half the price. When we checked, it was $300 vs. $600 for a similar flight from JFK.
  • Shuttle service is provided. Norwegian has contracted with Coach USA (i.e. Megabus) to offer a direct bus from Midtown Manhattan to the airport. It’s timed to get you there with plenty of time to spare and costs $20 each way, which is less than taking the train and a cab, which is another option. If the flight is late on the return, the bus will wait for you, since it’s specifically for Norwegian passengers.
  • Less chaotic check-in. Picking up international flight tickets at JFK often resembles a Depression-era run on the bank. When we flew to Copenhagen, we spent nearly 1.5 hours in line with roughly 250 fellow passengers. It was pure chaos. The desks at Stewart were still understaffed, but we arrived early on the shuttle and had a 15-minute wait for our tickets.
  • Reasonable scheduling. Flights are scheduled for overnight travel, departing at 9pm or so, which allows leaving in the afternoon to catch the flight after a full day of work. We don’t want to lose a travel day by flying east in the morning! On the way back, flights leave in the afternoon, getting you safely home by evening.
  • Customs in Ireland. Much like the process on flights to the US that connect via Canada, arrivals go through US customs in Ireland before departure on the return flight. There was no line. Avoiding customs in JFK was an amazing and unexpected perk.

Once you add it all up, flying via Stewart is roughly the same amount of time investment and way less stressful. If you’re driving from Upstate, Northeastern Pennsylvania or Northern New Jersey, you also have it made, since you can avoid all the traffic.

Not so great stuff

The timing of everything was pretty well done, with plenty of time for potential delays, though the few annoying parts had to do with waiting.

  • Traffic. On the departure, the shuttle to the airport got stuck in traffic. Still, we arrived at roughly 6:30 for a 9pm flight.
  • Waiting for the bus to depart. On the return, our flight got in very early, roughly 30-45 minutes. The bus, however, left at the scheduled time, which resulted in us waiting in line outside.
  • Understaffed check-in. This didn’t affect us, since we got in so early, but the check-in desk had a line snaking across the airport waiting to get their seat assignments. Still, everyone got through security before the flight departed. Notably, in JFK this same issue is amplified.

Where they fly

Flights from Stewart are mainly to Ireland and the UK, as well as Bergen, Norway. Dublin is an excellent jumping-off point for a trip around Europe because it’s home to so many discount carriers. Also, given Norwegian’s pricing per leg, you can always fly in to Ireland and return to the US from somewhere else, like Copenhagen or London.

Flight prices are very cheap now that it’s cold and dark in Europe and prices stay under $200 each way through April or May. You can book now through October 2018 on Norwegian.com.

Classic camping with a Coleman briefcase stove (How-to)

We were planning a car camping trip over the July 4th and I had to get us a Coleman stove. That’s because few things cause as much pleasant nostalgia as using the same equipment we used as Boy Scouts: Eureka Timberline tents, Coleman lanterns, and Coleman stoves were our mainstays. As you may have noticed from the link, people love these things so much there are collectors’ groups, like there are for comics, coins or stamps.

Why and where to buy one

Yes, those green metal briefcases weren’t lightweight, and they definitely weren’t in the best shape after cooking pounds and pounds of ground beef, bacon, or whatever mess we had chosen for our meals, but they were rock-solid and simple enough for a bunch of 12-year-olds not to break or cause an explosion. They run on good ol’ Coleman fuel, aka white gas, i.e., unleaded gasoline without the automobile additives.

They’re large enough to prepare a real meal, unlike your typical backpacking stove. They also happen to be incredibly easy to buy or to service. Parts and fuel for the Coleman gas lantern fit the stove and vice-versa. It’s one big unbeatable gas-burning system. In essence, it’s America. Thanks, petroleum!

Millions have been sold since the Baby Boom era and they all use roughly the same interchangeable parts, so I went ahead and bought the first inexpensive used model on Craigslist that didn’t require me to venture out past the ends of the subway. For $35 I got what was billed as a working 425B stove, as well as a percolator coffeepot. You’ll find them on eBay or Craigslist for around $45-50 or you can save yourself the trouble and buy a new one for $125-150.

Being the nostalgic soul and a bit of a cheapskate, I had to get the used made-in-USA version. Turns out it’s a true antique, likely from the 1950s!

Routine maintenance

I realized fairly quickly that it needed some work, though through trial and error and a bit of research, here’s what I determined needed to be done:

  • Oil the fuel pump cup. It’s made of leather and gets dried out. As long as its not cracked it doesn’t need to repaired, only oiled. I used sewing machine oil, others use motor oil or even olive oil. The pump pops out of its casing once you pull out the ring that holds it in place, no tools needed.
  • Replace the fuel cap gasket. This is because the ancient rubber gasket had fused with the metal to the point where it was indistinguishable from the rest of the cap. Heat it by holding over your gas stove with pliers, then dip it in cold water. Use a screwdriver or other chisel-like implement to remove the gasket from the metal channel. I then took the cap to Home Depot and tested o-rings until I found the right one to fit in the channel.You can also save yourself some time and just buy a new fuel cap, Coleman part number 3000000454.
  • Clean the fuel tank. Leave denatured alcohol in it overnight. Then shake and dump the alcohol, then rinse again with a cup of fuel. This will get all the flecks of rust, corrosion or debris out of the tank. These impurities can clog your generator, which is the metal tube that delivers the gas to the burner. A small funnel would help in this case so everything doesn’t smell like gas. Transfer fuels outside if you can.
  • Make sure the burner rings of the stove are stacked in the following order: flat, corrugated, flat, corrugated, flat, corrugated, flat (see photo). All you need for this is a flat-head screwdriver. All the corrugated rings were stacked together when I received the stove, thus transforming the burner opening from a honeycomb to a closed tube from which fuel could not escape. I copied the arrangement on the second burner. Problem solved.

This site is a great reference if you have more questions or would like photos.

Getting started

Another mystery is how to light the darn thing. Here’s where one of those metal-tipped fire lighters comes in handy. Follow these rough steps (and read this):

  1. Fill the tank half-way with gas. Close the cap, though only enough to hold a tight seal.
    Twist the pump valve one to two turns to the left, pump 20-25 times. Close the pump valve.
    Flip the “up to light” switch to the “up” position, then open the valve on the generator so you hear a liquid or spitting sound, not just air exiting the tank. The generator controls the flow.
  2. Light the right burner. Wait around a minute for it to heat up and check that there is a blue flame before turning the “up to light” switch to the “down” position. This step heats the generator and burns out any impurities from the line.
  3. Give the burner a few more pumps (10-15) until it is chugging along with a strong blue flame, similar to what you’d expect from a kitchen stove. My first few minutes cooking were handicapped by not pressuring the tank enough.
  4. To light the second (left) burner, turn the key in the hole in the left side of the stove to the left and light the burner as you did on the right. The more the burner is opened, the stronger the flame. It is fed from the main generator so no adjustments should be needed other than possibly turning up the gas.

When in doubt, fiddle with the generator valve for more or less fuel, or pump the tank when the flame isn’t coming out fast enough.

Conclusion

To sum it all up, if you’re up for a bit of a challenge, you can find nostalgic camping gear and service it yourself. It’s great for big meals and easy to fix in the field. The design looks the same as it did 65 years ago because you shouldn’t mess with perfection.

How to Take a Bath in Japan

Our Western stereotype of Japan is that everything there is small and more efficient, and while that isn’t entirely true, it does hold for the perplexing task of bathing in a Japanese bath. Believe it or not, bathing is not a straightforward exercise, and at the moment to you go bathe, we have found that there is no English language interpreter to assist.

Consider this blog post a short-cut that will allow you, the reader to avoid confused moments in a cold room when minimally clothed.

Boys and Girls

Japanese baths in the same family home are shared between the entire family, though in a public bath, hotel or guest house you may encounter two sets of fabric curtains. Blue is for men and red is for women.

All the facilities inside are shared between individuals of the same gender. Within the bath area, clothing is not used, though it seems that Japanese hotels understand that Westerners may feel uncomfortable, so they don’t seem to mind if you use a swimsuit, though in that case you wouldn’t be able to fully bathe.

Public baths have lockers for your belongings and towel and hotels, even simple ones, provide you with a kimono-like robe to wear before and after entering the baths. Once you’ve stashed your belongings and disrobed, enter the bath itself.

The Showerhead

Upon entering a Japanese bath, you will see a showerhead and faucet and a tub. The showerhead/faucet combo is accompanied by a small stool and a wash bucket. Japanese use the stool to sit while bathing and use the bucket to dump water over their bodies. For the most part, I treated the wash area as a shower and used the detatchable showerhead to rinse my body instead of the gung-ho bucket of water approach. Soap and shampoo are provided. There is also a mirror for shaving.

The Tub

In public baths, there is generally a large pool. This tub or pool is filled with hot water and stays clean of soap and unwashed bodies. Wash your body, your hair, and then rinse off the soap. After this step, you’re ready to enter the tub or pool for a nice soak. In public baths, the jacuzzi-like pool is shared among all. In private hotel rooms or homes, the small deep tub of soak water is maintained clean for the entire family.

Finishing Up

Once you’ve soaked sufficiently, you can get out and wash again or simply rinse off and dress. At this point you could put on your kimono-robe to walk around the hotel or dress in your usual attire.

Enjoy the feeling of relaxation and cleanliness. It’s like a normal bath, only better, since it’s Japanese.

Norwegian Airlines Post-Mortem / Review

I wrote this after our trip to Europe and forgot to post it until now.We had a full-fare experience at a discount-fare price on Norwegian and I hope you will too.

Norwegian Air competes on price and their planes are new, plus your seat still reclines. Your biggest hassle will be the ticket line prior to departure and checked bag fees.

Prior to this trip we didn’t quite know what to expect with Norwegian Airlines, which is the first budget carrier to enter the trans-Atlantic market. We were pleasantly surprised.

For $530 total, per person, we booked two one-way direct tickets in mid-September, an 11pm red-eye from JFK to Copenhagen and a Sunday afternoon return flight from London to JFK.

Having flown RyanAir, I was expecting the worst: strict carry-on weight and size limits, seats that don’t recline, and usurous prices for food and drink. This did not come to pass, but getting to the plane was a struggle.

Ever see one of those photos from the Great Depression of a run on the bank? That’s what the Norwegian check-in line looked like at JFK.

Apparently both online ticketing and self-service kiosks are unavailable at JFK, forcing everyone, even those with carry-on bags only, to check in the old-fashioned way: with a desk agent. Arriving 2 1/4 hours before our flight turned out to be just enough to keep us from seriously considering whether we would miss our flight entirely.

Either you’ll have the situation we faced on a Friday night, or it could be clear sailing. Plan for 3 hours. You have been warned.

Once we got to the front of the line, we sailed through. They weigh your carry-on to see that its under the 10kg (22lb) limit, but you can bring a second piece of hand luggage (e.g. a small backpack or laptop bag). They charge around $50 each way for checked luggage, which includes a meal. We skipped this extra charge by packing light.

Once on the plane, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is roomy, with huge carry-on bins, high ceilings, and air quality technology that is supposed to reduce jet lag. The only downside is the constant mood lighting in the aisles prevents the cabin from being dark enough, so bring a blindfold like a dork if you plan to sleep. Also bring a snack and a water bottle to save on snacks.

Each seat has a touchscreen display with free movies, games, and TV shows. Color me impressed.

On the way back from London Gatwick online check-in was still not available but we were able to check in with no line via the self-service kiosk. Ticketing and security at Gatwick are efficient and secure, no wonder the British love queueing.

All in all, a positive experience that we would repeat again with a bit extra time on the outbound.

Greyhound Road Rewards offers great value

Greyhound Road Rewards may be the best value travel rewards program out there, yet it flies under the radar because it doesn’t have the high profile of its own credit cards and internet shopping portals. It offers plenty of free travel — companion passes, discounts, and free tickets — at a low entry point.

Sign-up is simple and online and will give you your Road Rewards number. You start collecting rewards immediately. I explain the fare types, rewards, how to earn free travel, and other considerations below.

Fare Classes

Greyhound offers three fare classes, which are:

  • Economy: 1 point for each one-way trip (2 points round-trip)
    • $20 fee to rebook
  • Economy Extra: 2 points for each one-way trip (4 points round-trip)
    • Free same-day exchange or $20 fee to rebook
    • Priority boarding
  • Flexible: 3 points for each one-way trip (6 points round-trip)
    • Fully refundable
    • Priority boarding

If you book as a group, you can enter your Road Rewards number for both on the booking screen and earn points for members of the party.

Road Rewards

Rewards are given according to the following schedule:

Sign-up: 10% off
6 Points: Companion pass, 15% off, 10% off food
10 Points: Companion pass, 20% off
16 Points: Free ticket anywhere

That means, conservatively, after Economy 3 round-trips you’ll earn a free companion fare, then again after your 5th, and a free ticket after your 8th round-trip, not even taking into account the periodic smaller 10-20% discounts given. Greyhound also offers periodic seasonal discounts via email.

Once you reach 16 points, you’ll start over at 0 to repeat the cycle.

Earning Free Travel

I generally purchase the Economy tickets and let the rewards build up slowly, 2 points per trip to be exact, but I have reconsidered recently, for the following reason — and this is an extreme example because upgrades often cost much less:

rewards

Given that 6 points will earn a companion pass, the extra $22 you’d spend above to upgrade to Flexible will give you 4 points or 2/3 of a companion pass, i.e. $33 for a full companion pass. Since one full-price round-trip ticket is around $70, paying $33 for a companion pass would be a savings of over 50% for that second ticket.

I went to purchase tickets for Thanksgiving, which were already quite expensive, and the price differential between Economy and Flexible was only $3! That means for an extra $3, I earned 2/3 of another free ticket, plus the added benefit of free exchange or cancellation.

While the New York to Syracuse route may be our most frequent, Greyhound offers frequent service to Washington, DC, Boston, and even Montreal, among other cities.

Companion or free fares can be earned via travel on less expensive routes and redeemed for longer or non-stop routes, as we did on our overnight trip to Montreal. While 6-8 hours is usually my limit in a bus, if you wanted you could even use your rewards travel to Florida.

Considerations

The points and redemption structure is miles simpler than the airlines, though there are a few key caveats:

  • Tickets must be purchased online to receive the best rate
  • Points are only awarded after the trip has been taken
  • Any accrued points expire on the one-year anniversary of sign-up, so you’ll start over at 0, though you’ll keep your rewards
  • Rewards have an expiration date based on when they were earned. Details are available here
  • Greyhound’s ticketing policy includes an extra charge if the ticket purchaser isn’t part of the traveling party
  • Travelers on free or companion fares do not earn points

Conclusion

Greyhound’s Road Rewards policy is simple to understand and start earning rewards. Its structure allows some sweet spots, for example, earning rewards on shorter trips and redeeming for longer or more expensive routes.

It really shines if you take the bus often and tend to travel as a couple or with a friend, since companion passes are easy to earn and frequent. It’s also free to sign up and use.

In conclusion, sign up, you lose nothing and will receive great benefits.

Greyhound is underrated

If you’re like me and you consider getting the best possible price and route on trip tickets is a kind of game to “win”, then let me introduce you to the most undervalued choice on the travel market: Greyhound.

Greyhound. I know, the name conjures up dingy bus stations, panhandlers, and slow rides shared with dozens of strangers. I can’t promise to get around the “dozens of strangers” part, which is also part of air and train travel, though I can promise you won’t miss the security line or ride to and from the airport.

Greyhound’s negative brand equity is what has led to the boom of curbside bus operators like Megabus, Bolt Bus, and even the Chinatown bus. Bolt Bus, arguably the best-run curbside service, is in fact a rebranded joint venture with Greyhound and Peter Pan. But the ‘Hound has reformed, and in fact offers many overlooked advantages, including price.

This is not to say that I won’t take other services if they offer a great fare or convenient pick-up or drop-off location. My point is, all else equal, I’ll take Greyhound, and if the price is better which it often is, I’ll do so happily.

Back-up buses and drivers

If you’ve ever broken down in a Megabus or a Chinatown bus, I’m sorry. I’ve heard the stories of being stranded in a rest stop in New Jersey because the Chinatown bus broke down. About the worst I’ve fared is stopping in Jersey as the driver filled the tank with $120 of gas.

Greyhound has bus pools and spare drivers across the country. Other bus companies keep their prices low by skimping on this infrastructure.

Experienced drivers

You know the stereotype of the middle-aged bus driver with his sweater vest and moustache? Given the choice, it’s great that my driver has 20+ years of experience and a union contract that requires rest breaks.

Extensive routes

Ever need to go to Cortland, NY from New York City? Me either, but I’m glad that Greyhound offers service to less in-demand cities, should I ever decide to go there.

In-person customer service

Figuring out why discount bus carriers are late is a mess. They give you an 800 number to call if there is an issue. Greyhound has a ticket desk, where at least if they are unable to help, they can tell you face-to-face.

Indoor stations

This one has its pluses and minuses, as I mentioned the sad state of many bus stations is what scared many people off Greyhound in the first place. It is, however, really nice to wait for your bus indoors when its snowing or raining.

A truly great rewards program

The Road Rewards program, which rolled out last year, offers 20% off coupons, companion fares, food discounts, and even free tickets, all based on the number of trips you’ve taken. To date, I’ve earned and used two companion fares, one to go round-trip for two to Syracuse for $80, and the other to go to Montreal for $120 for two, with an upcoming trip for two over Thanksgiving for $99.

As other travel rewards plans devalue their points, Greyhound has added value. The companion vouchers used to be ineligible for redemption within New York State and to/from New York City, but the policy has recently changed to include all stations, New York included.

Well-maintained buses

Has your bus company ever been shut down (twice) by a federal safety investigation? While they may not always have the promised wi-fi or plugs, they are often quite nice, usually with leather seats. 

Conclusion

On price, convenience, and safety, consider Greyhound next time you’re comparing your trip options. Quick, before the secret is out!

How I got 21% back towards travel (Really)

I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred (referral link) card this past year to take advantage of the 50,000-point sign-up bonus, plus an additional 5,000 for adding an authorized user ($1155 at 2.1 cents per point !). It’s a good card that I use on a daily basis for most purchases, and it gives you 2x Chase Ultimate Rewards points on dining and travel, plus a host of other benefits, like no foreign transaction fees, rental car damage waiver and extended warranty protection, all of which I’ve used successfully. It has a $95 annual fee which is waived the first year.

Meanwhile, my old Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard was discontinued and converted into a Chase Freedom card, which is free. This card offers 5x point bonuses on rotating quarterly categories and 15,000 points ($150) for signing up. Currently (Q1 2016) the bonus category is local travel, including subways and taxis. Last quarter (Q4 2015) it was 10x (double the usual) on Amazon and Zappos, which was perfect for the Christmas season.

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Chase Freedom bonus categories for 2016 (Source: chase.com)

These both being Chase cards, they accrue Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Points can be combined between accounts and can even be pooled between you and your spouse. Now here’s the good part:

While the Freedom card only lets you redeem points for cash, the Sapphire card allows redemption at 1.25 cents for travel (cash value through Ultimate Rewards portal), as well as a 1:1 transfer to United Airlines (valued at 1.5 cents), British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and more. Having the Sapphire card lets you in on the benefits for all your Chase Ultimate Rewards cards (Freedom, Ink, Sapphire, etc.)

Thus with the 10x points earned during the Christmas season from Amazon mentioned earlier, each dollar spent gave us 21 cents (21%) back towards redemptions via Chase Sapphire and 15 cents (15%) on United Airlines in particular.

We’ll definitely be planning some flights this year. Happy travels!

Amtrak Guest Rewards, Best Deal in Travel, Gets Better (for Most)

Photo: Amtrak’s California Zephyr (Source: EbgundyOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Time for some train travel talk. Dollar-for-dollar, Amtrak’s Guest Rewards (AGR) program remains one of the best redemption deals in travel rewards.

AGR has undergone some changes recently that have shifted, and in most cases improved its value for those looking to redeem. At 2.9 cents of value per point earned, its eclipses most airline miles, which are worth ~1-2 cents per point, can take you from coast-to-coast, with a few sweet spots,  such as travel in the Northeast, that make it well worth your while.

I’ve been saving up Amtrak Guest Rewards points since I first signed up for the old AGR MasterCard many years ago. Chase Sapphire recently discontinued their relationship with AGR, though the Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx card still offers 1:1 transfers. With low redemption thresholds, you’ll be earning reward travel after as little as one month.

Redeeming Points, Before

Formerly, Amtrak tickets were redeemable on a zone-based system.

amtrak_zones
Amtrak’s old zone-based redemption map (Source: Amtrak.com)

This zone system rewarded buying tickets at the last minute, as the redemption was based on geography and not on price. The best redemption value was within the Northeast Corridor (NEC), roughly from Buffalo to Boston and Montreal through Washington, DC and down to Virginia Beach. It was also a great deal for certain high-priced redemptions, such as coast-to-coast sleeper car travel. However, it had blackout dates around all major holidays and was an exceedingly bad deal for inexpensive trips.

old_redemption

Redeeming Points, Now

As of January 24, 2016, the new redemption system is in effect. Now allowed: redemption of points at any time (no blackouts) and for any route, based on price, with a minimum redemption of 800 points per ticket.

For most trips, especially those booked in advance, it represents a significant savings. For trips within the Northeast Corridor, tickets are from 20-50% less points, on average.
To figure out whether the redemption rate has improved, refer to the following chart I’ve created below. When a ticket is priced on Amtrak.com at less than the price below and greater than the minimum ticket price of $23.20, that trip is now cheaper under the new scheme:

new_redemptionvalue_minimum

Rating the New Points Redemption

To test the value of the new system, I’ve made some ticket price calculations using Amtrak.com which I present below. Note: Saver fares are not valid for reward travel, and Acela (2.5 cents per point) has been left out of these calculations.

Within the NEC, a round-trip for 2 from New York Penn Station (NYP) to Boston (BOS) formerly cost 16,000 points ($464 at 2.9 cents per point) in the zone system. It now costs 10,207 points ($296) at the Value ticket level, for a savings of 36%. A round-trip for 2 from New York to Philadelphia (PHL) now costs $220 or 7,586 points, for a savings of 53%!

Outside the Northeast, Los Angeles (LOS) to San Diego (SAN) has dropped -15%, Miami (MIA) to Savannah (SAV) -50% and Denver (DEN) to Salt Lake City (SLC) -49% in points needed for redemption, all significant improvements.

round_coach.png

For long-distance sleeper travel, the new rates are much more of a mixed bag, with a few declines and many steep increases in points needed for redemption. The more cramped roomette accommodations on the California Zephyr from Chicago (CHI) to San Francisco (SFW) have increased significantly (+30%) for a two-person room, while the nicer bedroom accommodations have increased only slightly (+7%). Roomette trips from Seattle (SEA) to San Francisco have actually decreased in points needed for redemption (-9%).

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If you’re in the Northeast or plan to travel often by train, Amtrak Guest Reward points offer great value and flexibility. You can sign up and view their redemption guidelines at http://www.amtrakguestrewards.com.

Note: There have been reports that certain itineraries at high-demand times carry a points redemption penalty. This has not generally been true on the routes referenced above.