Air Travel 101 – Trip Tips

MBA students travel a surprising amount, and after our recent trip to Israel as part of Cornell Tech’s iTrek, we compiled the list below of important travel tips. Some of us are seasoned travel veterans, and some are new to the game. I’m somewhere in-between, but I think this list will help anyone who is about to take flight.

  1. ticket prices increase the closer to your departure date – this one is pretty simple. Don’t wait to book! The sweet spot is 54 days before your travel, and the best days to book are Tuesday through Thursday – not weekends!
  2. finding a direct flight should be significantly preferred – unless you enjoy sleeping in airports, avoiding layovers reduces the possibility of a lost bag and eliminates the possibility of missing a connection. An overnight layover that I recently had in London totaled $140 in taxis and a hotel – not exactly a bargain.
  3. travel light – packing less and leaving a little space will give you the flexibility to buy things on your trip and carry less when traveling.
  4. signup for miles rewards programs – rewards programs these days are basically just currencies controlled by airlines. They give them away, for free, when you travel with them. Warning: keep an eye on the expiration dates.
  5. in a hurry? Carrying on is always faster – even if you get a free checked bag, carrying on will be less waiting and less of a headache. Be sure to board first so the overhead bin doesn’t fill up.
  6. TSA Pre-check is inexpensive and the greatest thing ever – $85 for five years ($17 a year) gets you the best kept secret that most casual travelers don’t know. TSA Pre-check will make you (almost) enjoy breezing through a shorter security line at US airports. CLEAR is a more expensive alternative that is also available internationally.
  7. always make an attempt at language/cultural understanding – locals always appreciate it when you attempt to meet them on their level. Struggling through a phrase or two can be worth it, and you might even learn something or create a great memory.
  8. travel comfortable – This is mostly preference, but travel can be uncomfortable. Sweatpants and comfortable shoes make everything better!
  9. think ahead about your sleep schedule – Doing this will really help alleviate jet lag. There’s even an app called Entrain developed at the University of Michigan that uses science to help you adjust to your destination timezone.
  10. always use the best resources to plan (and book)

Bests of Baltimore

I’m leaving Baltimore, a city that I’ve called home for the past ten years, and thought it would be fun to list a few recommendations. Enjoy!

Best Coffeeshop: The Bun Shop. Fantastic coffee and small eats, friendly staff, and unique urban styling won this category. The Bun Shop, including its second location downtown, is an absolute gem. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be, “chill.”

Best Restaurant: Joe Benny’s. When this place first opened, I was so impressed that I made a Yelp account to leave a review. Since then, other people have discovered Joe Benny’s, and it’s currently the #1 reviewed Baltimore restaurant on Yelp. Granted, Yelp isn’t the judge and jury of restaurants, but Google reviews and other sites agree – Joe Benny’s is nothing short of fantastic. I think it’s a matter of time until the restaurant expands; it currently only has a dozen or so small tables. Get the Fiore – focaccia with meatballs.

Best Italian Market: Trinacria. Trinacria beat out Di Pasquales, another excellent choice, because of better overall pricing. I usually ransack Trinacria for their selection of Italian wines, but the Deli is excellent as well. Buyer beware, both Trinacria and Di Pasquales are dodgy areas. Leave nothing in plain sight in your car.

Best Fine Dining: Charleston. Yes, Charleston is expensive, but it is also the best dining experience you can find in Baltimore. There is no question about it. Expect $100-200 per person including wine, and a number of tastes and flavors that you never knew existed.

Best Cocktail Bar: WC Harlem. If candlelight is your thing, then WC Harlem needs to be added to your list. WC Harlem is impressively unique, both in atmosphere and in menu. Check it out, if you can find it. It’s more of a speakeasy, so it doesn’t have any huge neon signs that can be seen from the road.

Best $/lb Sandwich: Chaps Pit Beef. I don’t think any Baltimore list would be complete without Chaps, aka the world’s best sandwich place in the parking lot of a strip club. My favorite is the Raven – Beef, Corned Beef, and Turkey. Definitely get some of their homemade Tiger sauce too, but be careful, it’s a bit spicy.

Best Sandwich Selection: Take It Away Deli. I know sandwiches, and this place knows them too! They have over 40 sandwiches on the menu, making Take It Away the best Deli downtown. Oh, and the staff are super friendly and fun, too.



Certifying a Home with LEED v4

The goals of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) target climate change, resource management, biodiversity, and quality of life. To get a home project certified, the most important note to remember is that you must engage and register your project before designing or building it. Large parts of the LEED certification focus on site selection, so aiming for a certification after construction has commenced will not work. The LEED process is rigorous, and is not for those with shallow pockets.


Building must be on a “permanent location on existing land.” For example, mobile homes are not eligible for LEED. Prefabricated homes (that are gaining in popularity) are eligible, as long as they are part of a permanent installation. The LEED project seeking certification should include the entire building and the total scope of work, not only the building itself. This includes hardscapes like driveways, bushes, trees, and other landscaping. In addition, local building codes must define the structure as a “dwelling unit,” in order to be eligible for a LEED housing certification. The international residential code stipulates that a dwelling unit must include “permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation.”

LEED Certification Levels

Which LEED certification level your project receives is based on an often-debated point system. For LEED Homes, the maximum point potential is 110. The chart below shows the possible points by category for homes. Most categories have a points-for-performance path in
addition to the more standard path.

LEED v4 Home Categories Possible Points
Integrative Process 2
Location and Transportation 15
Sustainable Sites 7
Water Efficiency 12
Energy and Atmosphere 38
Materials and Resources 10
Indoor Environmental Quality 16
Innovation 6
Regional Priority 4
 TOTAL: 110


The Points

I recommend approaching the LEED point system by reviewing each of the 110 points (including the required pre-requisites that do not award points values) and assign a dollar value to each. This method will help determine both a home design and the LEED certification level target. Once the home is built and ready for review, the $300 cost to pursue LEED certification goes to the US Green Building Council in order to book an onsite certification survey.

Many of the points are awards based on some kind of technical, sliding scale. For example, reducing water usage by 10% is one point, and 20% is two points, etc. I selected a handful of “easy” points below and summarized each category. Achieving all 14+ “easy” points below will put your home project well on its way to reach 40 points for a LEED certification!

Sustainable Sites – This category focuses on the site environment, and supporting the natural ecosystem of the site.

  • 1-2 points for locating trees or non-absorptive materials to cover >50% of roofs or other hardscapes surfaces.
  • ½ point for designing landscape features to provide a minimum 18-inch (450 millimeter) space between the exterior wall and any plantings.

Water EfficiencyThis section rewards points for efficiencies in indoor and outdoor water use, and water metering and management.

  • 1 point for the average toilet flush volume across all toilets not exceeding 1.1 gallons (4.1 liters). Each toilet fixture and fitting must be WaterSense labeled.
  • 1 point for all clothes washers to be energy star qualified (or performance equivalent outside the US).
  • 1-4 points for reducing grass areas and increasing native plantings, as percentage of total landscape area.

Energy and Atmosphere – The bulk of this section (18 of the 38 points) focuses on the degree to which energy efficiency can be improved compared to a baseline standard. More efficiency awards more LEED points.

Materials and ResourcesThis category primarily addresses building materials, including transport and disposal.

Indoor Environmental Quality – This section focuses on air quality, including thermal, visual, and acoustic comfort. This section is one of the most health-conscious parts of the LEED certification.

  • 1 point for a control for the use of the local exhaust fan in full bathrooms, such as an auto-off timer or an occupancy sensor.
  • ½ point for including a non-carpeted mudroom
  • ½ point for sealing all permanent ducts and vents after installation to minimize contamination from construction. Remove seals after all phases of construction are completed.
  • 1 point for multiple thermostat zones for both heating and cooling. Single-family houses with less than 800 square automatically meet the requirements of this credit.
  • 2 points for NOT installing any fireplaces or woodstoves. These can still be installed for 1 point if they are EPA-qualified.

Innovation – The LEED authors largely leave this section open to accommodate future innovations in building design and construction.

  • 1 point for having at least one principal participant of the project team with a LEED Accredited Professional (AP) certification and a specialty appropriate for the project.

Regional Priority – This section awards points to specialized priorities based on region. The point values vary by region. 

Points spreadsheet sample from US Green Building Council

A Common Pitfall

According to a Philadelphia architect who I spoke with, a common pitfall in LEED certifications is shortcuts in construction. Builders may substitute less green materials – say a ceramic floor instead of something more sustainable – on their own accord. In defense of the builder, such a shortcut may be more cost effective and faster to install. Unfortunately, removing the error and installing what was originally needed for LEED points generates even more waste. To avoid this, hiring a LEED-certified builder is strongly recommended.

Resale Value & Conclusion

As of this writing, hard evidence for LEED certifications yielding higher selling prices does not exist. However, several studies and articles support a correlation with energy efficiency improvements to a home and a higher selling price. This makes sense because both LEED and green homes have lower utility costs and are healthier for occupants. Extremely green homes such as those with LEED certifications may sell for as much of a ~30% premium, while homes with moderate energy efficient accommodations and certifications may sell for a ~10% premium. Data is spotty, since US property markets vary widely, and finding both a LEED home and a comparable non-LEED home is difficult. Nonetheless, although the LEED brand may still be new to some home buyers, the benefits of greening a home (that LEED requires) appears to almost always be a smart investment.

For more information about the LEED certification for homes, here’s a link to the US Green Building Council:


Investing Experiment Wrap-Up

After a year of ten novice investors, ten accounts, and $10,000, we have some RESULTS. Market indexes such as the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the Nasdaq Composite each outpaced the return on investment for the group as a whole. Once the twelve months had passed, the group lost 4.95% of the original $10,000, and most indexes only lost about 1%-1.5% over the same time period.
As you can see, one participant did exceptionally well. Bryan’s boost from February through June was primarily from a well-timed purchased of AMD stock. Another participant did exceptionally poorly, jumping from one losing position to another. As you can see from the graph, most did not break even.
As the organizer of the experiment, I was able to see and track all trades. Now that it’s complete, the following investing fundamentals are now proven once again:
  • Cutting Losses: Never watch an investment of yours continue to drop with the hope that it will bounce back. Once you’ve lost 15%-20%, it is almost certainly time to cut your loss and sell. According to Warren Buffet and Benjamin Graham, cutting your losses is the most important investing concept.
  • Acting on Impulse – The stock market – and most investors – are driven by impulses and short term market news. Taking 24 hours or more before placing a trade will help to alleviate speculative purchases. Many participants changed their minds from one stock to another in a matter of hours.
  • Beating the Market – Only one of the experiment’s participants managed to beat the market, and he did so by buying a risky stock that fluctuates wildly. Especially for novice investors, index funds are your friend. They will keep pace with the market. Why? Because that’s exactly what they are designed to do!

One opportunity that the experiment uncovered was in text trading. Given the convenience of trading through me, a majority of participants opted to text their trades via SMS. I don’t think many major brokerages support this functionality at this time, so text trading may be an unmet need in the investing market.

Investing Experiment Kickoff

On July 1st of this year, ten individuals and I kicked off a very unique investing experiment that will last 12 months. Using $10,000 of real money, I allocated $1,000 to each participant to invest how they saw fit. We’ll see who does best (and ask why) after 12 months pass. Although it costs nothing to participate, to better emulate the outcome of real individual investing, profits will be shared with the participants. I will foot the bill for all commissions. On the first of each month, I share a monthly update to all participants showing exactly how their investments are performing.

After less than two months have passed, I’ve observed the following:

  • Participants make trade requests using written communication (not verbal), notably via SMS and Email.
  • Order types (market, limit, etc) vary based on the previous investing expertise of each individual.
  • The only investment that more than one participant purchased was stock in Disney (NYSE: DIS).

The goal for this experiment is not to make money, although that would be a fun bonus. Instead, we aim to analyze participants actions and their investing results. We aim to answer simple questions about individual investing, such as: What triggers an investor to take action? When given $1,000 and zero risk, what do investors buy? What impact does competition have in this group of 10?

Tracking is accomplished using a shared Google Spreadsheet.

Hacking the Amtrak Points System to Travel on the Cheap

*** UPDATE: Amtrak has changed their rewards program from a flat cost to a sliding scale, somewhat proportional to the dollar cost. The good news is, if you book in advance, you can find cheap points fares. See more here: ***

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.



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.