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.



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.