Hacking the Amtrak Points System to Travel on the Cheap

If you ride Amtrak more than once per year, I promise you want to read this whole thing. However, the time you will spend clicking, waiting, and transferring points is considerable, so get ready to do a bit of work.

via Wikipedia Creative Commons

 

Amtrak’s Fare Pricing System

Let’s start with some basics, using regular economy-class travel from New York City to Baltimore as an example. The one-way cost between Baltimore and New York City will be around $50 when booked two or more weeks in advance. As is the norm in the travel industry, the cost increases as you approach the travel date. Booking that one-way fare on the same day you plan to travel will be anywhere from $107-$172 (or even more). Let’s take a closer look at Amtrak’s rewards program and their partner relationships to see how we can avoid paying so much (or anything at all) for that expensive fare.

Amtrak Guest Rewards Points

Amtrak points are better than gold to book fares. No matter when you make your reservation, the number of points required is the same. Our NYC to Baltimore economy seat costs 4000 points regardless of whether it is booked 4 weeks or 4 hours in advance. Therefore, 4000 points can be worth $50, and can also be worth $172. Points can be earned from riding the train, completing various promotions with Amtrak partners, purchasing points directly with cash, and transferred from other travel miles and credit card points programs. Clearly, there are plenty of ways to earn Amtrak points – we need to find the best ways to obtain lots of them.

Points from Riding: You earn 2 points per every $1 spent on Amtrak travel. When you ride business class or first class, you earn more points.
Points from Cash: You can buy 500 points from Amtrak for $13.75 (I assume they adjust this price every year or so with the rate of inflation). Since you need 4000 points to book a one-way trip in the Northeast, you’ll need to spend $110 to buy 4000 points outright. That’s a steep price to pay for most destinations, but it also brings up an important point – if you are looking at any Northeast fare more than $110, buy the 4000 points outright to book the ticket! Why pay $172 in cash for a seat that you can book using 4000 points purchased for $110?
Points from Promotions: Several simple marketing offers will earn you more Amtrak Guest Rewards Points. Most of these require that you spend money on something, such as a hotels, flights, or department store goods. Some don’t. One promotion for Metlife can be completed annually and earns you 500 Amtrak Points for simply calling to get a car insurance quote. The updated list of these promotions can be found on the Amtrak Guest Rewards website under “Earn.”
Points from Transfers: Many hotel, airline, car rental, and credit card loyalty programs will allow you to transfer points from one program to another. Based on some quick math, the transfer rate is very good between these programs. For example, transferring 4000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points – equal to $40 in cashback from Chase – to 4000 Amtrak Guest Rewards Points is an incredible advantage to Amtrak travelers. Remember, those Chase points can be used to book Amtrak fares worth hundreds of dollars after the conversion. Also, those points from Chase accrue from you using your card regularly at no cost to you, so after you transfer them to Amtrak, you’d be riding Amtrak for free!

Summary and Closing Notes

  • For any Northeast fare that costs more than $110, buy 4000 Amtrak points for $110 and book the fare using those points.
  • Many transfers, conversions, and redemptions with Amtrak points take 4-6 weeks to process, so be sure to allow adequate time for the points to show up in your account.
  • In order to change a reservation made with points, you need to cancel the booking, and then re-book with the points again. There is no ‘modifying’ the reservations made with points.
  • Amtrak Guest Rewards Program’s customer service is AWESOME. The service level is better in my humble opinion than that of many Fortune 500 companies. They are available 7 days a week from 5am-midnight Eastern Time (GMT+4/5): 1-800-307-5000.

This article was written in July 2014 and may not account for changes in Amtrak’s policies or Guest Rewards Program. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments and I will try to answer as best I can.

Pinnacle Engineering – Ignite Baltimore 14 Conference

At heart I’m an engineer. One of my favorite ways to screen suck on the internet is to review the biggest buildings, bridges, ships, and planes. For Ignite Baltimore 14, I pitched a presentation about gigantic, “Megatall” skyscrapers – how they are built, the challenges preventing their construction, and which Megatalls stand as the tallest in the world today.

Pinnacle Engineering began by describing our current golden age of engineering. As of 2014, eight out of the top ten tallest buildings in the world were each built within the last ten years. There are many companies and plans vying for a chance to join these ranks, but a long list of factors prevent more skyscrapers from breaking ground. Skyscrapers must withstand natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods, and even non-natural disasters like terrorism. Those engineering challenges, combined with the local laws, zoning regulations, and cost, are part of a long list of reasons why skyscrapers are not more common. 

The United States pioneered this engineering era with the Empire State Building in New York City. The Empire State Building stood as the world’s tallest building for ~40 years, and was the first building in the world with over 100 floors. Present day, much of the Megatall building construction occurs in the Middle East and Asia.

  • As of 2014, the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Reaching over a half-mile into the sky with over 160 floors, you can tell from the design that the benefactors were clearly aiming for the “world’s tallest” title.
  • The Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel in the holy Saudi city of Mecca is the tallest hotel in the world with 120 floors. It overlooks the Kaaba – the black cube building that Muslims all over the world face when praying.
  • One World Trade Center was completed in 2013, and stands at a symbolic 1776 ft. It is one of seven skyscrapers in the new World Trade Center complex. Two and Three WTC are planned to be built within the next few years, along with the 9/11 memorial/museum and new transportation hub.
  • In Taiwan, the Megatall Taipei 101 held the title of the world’s tallest from 2004-2010, but now it has dropped all the way to the 5th tallest in the world, which gives a sense of how golden this golden age of Pinnacle Engineering is. The Taipei 101 incorporates traditional Asian design elements, and features a 728 ton steel mass dampener between the 87th and 92nd floors. The dampener, suspended on a pendulum, acts as a counterweight during earthquakes.

Another engineering technology that is gaining popularity is prefabrication. Similar to building a Jenga or Lego tower, prefabricated buildings complete each building component offsite, and then ship the pieces to the building’s location for assembly. Prefabrication has shortened the amount of time it takes to build from months to just days. A prefabrication example I touched on in the talk was a 30-story hotel in China built in just 15 days. You can watch a time-lapse of the hotel’s construction on YouTube here.

Baltimore also has some significant skyscraper development on the horizon. Baltimore city approved a controversial billion-dollar Harbor Point development project between the Harbor East and Fells Point areas of the city. The tallest building will reach a height of 350 ft, and the complex will feature the new headquarters of Exelon Corporation, the same company that recently acquired Constellation Energy and BGE (Baltimore Gas & Electric). I closed the presentation with a mind-blowing comparison of Shanghai’s skyline in 1990 and its skyline in 2010. As you can see below, the change is incredible.

Shanghai-1990-vs-2010

 

Wikipedia is an absolutely great reference for well-organized, up-to-date skyscraper information. Check out the list of the tallest buildings in the world on Wikipedia here. Click the video below to view the presentation on YouTube. 

Finding Value And Consistency In Consolidated Water Co.

Consolidated Water Co. Ltd. (CWCO) is a tiny company, with a market cap of only $172mm. As of its latest quarterly report ending Q3 2013, Consolidated Water was trading at 0.8x the value of net working capital. Over the past few years, CWCO has traded well under book value, but remains a small, relatively undiscovered stock. For those looking to diversify into a teeny utility company, Consolidated Water is certainly worth a look.

The stock is much more volatile than most utilities. Consolidated Water’s high beta of 1.5 is surprising, but not necessarily a deterrent. The high beta may be attributed to the small size of the company, enabling any investor with substantial buying power to push the stock up or down. The stock prices of significantly larger utility companies like American Water Works (AWK) and California Water Service Group (CWT) fluctuate much less, with lower betas of 0.29 and 0.42, respectively.

Other fundamentals that provide key insights are the P/E around 15 and the percentage of institutional ownership at 49%. As with other companies in the water supply sector…

—> To continue reading, please see the article on Seeking Alpha, where it was published. 

How the Stock Exchange Works

I subscribe to the Visual.ly weekly newsletter, which highlights excellent representations of data. As the name suggests, Visual.ly is a community of artists and designers who make data beautiful and easy to digest. Periodically the community branches out of their typical info-graphics (pictures) and into videos. This week, they sent out an excellent video how the stock exchange works:

Investing for the Average Person – Ignite Baltimore 13 Conference

Copyright Bruce F Press PhotographyEarlier this year, the Ignite Baltimore Conference Organizers selected my pitch for the 13th Ignite Baltimore Conference. Ignite Conferences are similar to TED talks – both provide a medium for passionate presenters to share their ideas. The format of Ignite is very rigid, and certainly lives up to the tagline, “Enlighten us, but make it quick.” Each speaker has five minutes to present 20 slides which advance automatically every 15 seconds. As a speaker, planning and practicing with this format in mind is essential.

My presentation, Investing for the Average Person, covered some misunderstandings, intimidation factors, and a simple investing example using index funds. The internet provides a multitude of ways to invest instead of leaving money stagnating in a bank savings account. However, lacking financial education at all levels leaves many young people unprepared to navigate the countless number of investment products available to them. For the most part, much of the investing world focuses on more information than the average person needs to know. For basic investing, many people can disregard terms like derivatives, options, futures, shows like Jim Cramer’s Mad Money, and worries about large risks. The average person can largely ignore many of these distracting terms and media that is mostly focused on short term market news.

The example I presented demonstrated how an American named Sally could plan, save, and invest in index funds – a type of mutual fund – to finance a purchase of a new car. This example is not exclusive to a car, and could be applied to support retirement, a property, or savings toward a degree. Sally’s first step is to plan her investment. How much does she need for her car? Are there investment minimums she must save up to before investing? Questions like these will help Sally shape her investment planning. Once she has saved the needed funds, she invests her money and largely relaxes.

Sally planned to put half of her dollars into a stock index fund (such as ticker VGTSX), and half of her dollars into a bond index fund (such as ticker VBMFX). This plan is called a target investment allocation. Instead of picking a few stocks, investing in index funds diversifies Sally’s investment over hundreds of industries and sectors, which lowers her potential risk. For an average investor who does not care to analyze detailed earnings reports and study financial news, index funds are ideal. The only action Sally may need to take as her investment matures is to re-balance her investment back to the 50/50 target she initially planned. Sticking to her plan will help her stay on track and achieve her goal of a new car.

As I wrapped up, I touched on a few important concepts an average person should be familiar with: capital gains taxes, keeping a personal financial ledger, and inflation [Investopedia links]. With this basic knowledge, an average person will gain the confidence and organizational skills to invest their money and achieve their financial goals.

Yahoo! CEO Mayer’s Four Pronged Strategy for Success

Acquisitions and Strategy

The age old expression “you have to spend money to make money” drove Yahoo (YHOO) and CEO Marissa Mayer to acquire Tumblr for $1.1 Billion. Yahoo already owns several social-media focused business units like Flickr, GeoCities, Koprol, Snip.it, and Bix. Buying Tumblr caught the most headlines, but Yahoo also acquired eight other companies in the second quarter: Summly, Astrid, Milewise, Loki Studios, Go Poll Go, PlayerScale, Rondee, and Ghostbird Software. The Tumblr acquisition adds a massive blogging platform to accompany the successfully rebooted Flickr photo service. Tumblr focuses on blogging in the purest form – simple paragraphs and heavy use of media, with a nod to extensive community commentary. A quarter-million new blogs are created every day, and each creates more internet real estate for Yahoo’s display advertisements. Mayer’s strategy is to focus Yahoo on four key areas: Search, Mobile, Display, and Video. The advertising market in these segments looks to be held by Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB). If Yahoo is to continue to exceed financial expectations in CEO Marissa Mayer’s four areas of focus, success hinges on driving searches and advertisements with user-generated content.

Earnings and Revenue

Yahoo continued to buyback shares as part of the $5 Billion buyback program announced last year. On the Q2 2013 earnings call, CFO Ken Goldman announced that $1.9 Billion in shares remain to be repurchased. With less common stock shares outstanding YHOOepsperelatedin the market, buybacks will drive earnings per share (EPS) higher and the price-to-earnings ratio (P/E) lower. A positive EPS and low P/E are both fundamental indicators of a healthy, profitable company. Yahoo’s relatively low P/E of 7.91 is not uncommon for similar companies [see graphic, right].

To help pay for the share buyback and all of Yahoo’s acquisitions, the company sold $846 million of their preferred shares of the Alibaba Group, the Chinese E-Commerce giant. With new companies being acquired at an increasing rate and a $1.9 Billion left to buyback, Yahoo is burning through cash. Between the end of Q1 2013 and the end of Q2 2013, the company’s cash stockpile decreased by $600 million. $4.8 Billion in cash remains on their balance sheet after Q2 2013 though, so Yahoo is not at risk to dip into the red anytime soon.

YHOOsurpriseFurther fundamental analysis suggests that Yahoo is still an attractive investment even after the stock has gained over 60% in the past year. The Beta of just 0.83 shows that the stock is less volatile than the rest of the market. A low beta is ideal for a long position in the stock, since the share price is less likely to have sweeping changes and fluctuations, potentially giving investors more time to contemplate a change in position. The PEG ratio average for Yahoo’s industry is 2.97%, while the entire S&P stands at 1.98%. The PEG ratio – the P/E divided by the expected growth rate – is 1.28% for Yahoo, showing that Yahoo is less expensive compared to the rest of the market. Quarterly earnings reports are a huge perception of performance and health, and Yahoo’s Q2 results continued the company’s earnings beat.

CEO Marissa Mayer’s Strategies are Working

 

The revolving door of candidates at Yahoo’s CEO position for the past few years left the company misguided and lacking a vision. Mayer’s leadership has energized Yahoo’s employees and given the company a firm direction. With the Tumblr blogging platform now a part of Yahoo, Mayer is looking to solidify Yahoo’s business in mobile and display, as she mentioned in the Q2 earnings call. Aside from turning Yahoo’s financials around, Mayer has changed the culture at Yahoo immensely. Since Mayer started at Yahoo in July 2012:

YHOO1yr

  • The stock price has gained over 50%
  • Falling revenue ($7.5 Billion in 2008 to $5.5 Billion in 2012) has stopped falling
  • Employee attrition has decreased 59% year over year
  • 12% of new hires are Old Employees returning

In one of the most clever business moves in recent memory, Mayer decreed that employees would no longer be able to work remotely from offices due to widespread reports of an unproductive remote workforce. Any employee who cannot adhere to this policy “should quit.” Without the morale impact of a layoff, Mayer effectively trimmed resource costs and increased efficiency. I doubt that this move was a layoff in disguise, but the result of better teams and cutting costs is very similar.

With a clear business strategy in four key areas, a competent leader who is reshaping the culture, and rising earnings results, don’t be surprised if Yahoo’s stock continues to rise.

Editing a WordPress Theme – Image Replacement

Approach

LinkedInHoverSundance

In the Sundance theme by Automattic, a simple feature is glaringly omitted – a theme link to your LinkedIn profile above the right sidebar. The theme has links to Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and even Flickr, but LinkedIn is oddly missing. To build out this feature, I shopped together a LinkedIn image that matches the other images using the Paint.net simple (and free) image editor. Since I did not plan to use the built-in link to Facebook, my strategy was to replace the Facebook image on both the front end and back end with a new one for LinkedIn. After replacing the Facebook-ico.gif with my new LinkedIn image, I edited a PHP file in the theme so that a mouse hovering over the image would display “LinkedIn” instead of “Facebook”.

Building the New ImageImageEdit

But how did I get the colors correct and the dimensions matching? The images to Twitter and Google+ aren’t even rendered as images on the page! Simple – I fired up FileZilla, navigated to wp-content/themes/sundance/images and found the .gif files for Twitter, Facebook, and the other options the theme provides by default. I pulled the facebook-ico.gif down from the server onto my local machine, and added it to Paint.net into it’s own layer. I then added a LinkedIn logo from Google Images that I would tweak to fit the theme. I matched the color from the Facebook logo, and using the magic wand, painted the matching color to the LinkedIn image. Then I deleted everything except the LinkedIn layer, resized the canvas to 28×28, and saved the LinkedIn image as “facebook-ico.gif”. The last step was to copy the finished product back into the same location (wp-content/themes/sundance/images) using FileZilla. 

Editing the PHP

PHP Edit

From your WordPress dashboard, navigating to Appearance > Editor, will allow you to tweak several files that make your theme work. After some searching for the term “facebook”, I found the PHP file called “sidebar.php”, and replaced the “Facebook” text with “LinkedIn” as shown in the screenshot. That’s all it took to change the mouse hover text!

Disclaimer: Some hosting companies block the WordPress Theme Editor that I used to prevent users from breaking elements on their site. As always, keep a backup and use at your own risk.