Category Archives: Wisdom

Zeroth World Problems

First World Problems vs. Zeroth World Problems

You’ve probably heard the comment, “wow, that’s really a first world problem.”  Maybe it’s when you curse after getting some dirty slush from a puddle on your brand new Uggs, and then notice the homeless guy across the street with holes in his shoes.  Or maybe it’s when you’re feeling very put out by the fact that your remote is missing and you had to get up from the couch to turn on your 65″ TV.  These are problems that billions of people in the world wish they had.  First world problems.

"Hey! This Gulasch mit Spätzle had TWO sprigs of parsley garnish in the menu picture. Take it back."

“Hey! This Gulasch mit Spätzle had TWO sprigs of parsley garnish in the menu picture. Take it back.”

Lately I’ve started using the term “zeroth world problems” to describe ‘problems’ related to the free travel game.  These are problems that most of the first world wished they had.  Hang around blogs like this one and similar forums and you’ll know what I mean.

Poor me!  I just found a free flight to Europe with a lie-flat seat, in business class like I wanted, to the destination I wanted, on the date I wanted.  BUT it has a long layover at an airport where I don’t have free lounge access.” (This was actually a thought I had a few days ago.)

“I have 4 free nights expiring soon so I had to plan a free trip with my wife to Aruba.  What an inconvenience!!  (I’ve actually heard this one too.)

“There are just too many good credit card offers out there right now.  It’s going to be so much work to figure out which ones to get for the most free money and travel.”

What a rip-off!  I’m using OVER HALF the points from ONE CREDIT CARD BONUS and all I’m getting for them is 2 free international flights.”  (I’ll claim this one too, just yesterday.)

You get the idea.  These are zeroth* world problems.  Actually complaining about this stuff and calling them problems is pathetic.  If you’re fortunate enough to have the credit score and the information resources (valuetactics.com) to maximize this game, you shouldn’t be complaining about anything.
* I like the alternate spelling “zeroeth” but google likes it the other way.

wine selection - a zeroth world problem

On our free first class flight last summer I could have had any of these wines for no charge. But I was utterly disgusted that they weren’t offering any California Champagnes by Paul Masson.

Travel snobbery is nothing new, but it’s usually reserved for those who are paying an arm and a leg for first class seats and luxury hotels.  This is somewhat understandable.  I could also understand complaining about major issues with free flights or hotels.  But traveling for free and complaining about tiny inconveniences or flaws?  Please. . .

You can’t be a travel snob if you’re getting it all for free!

Zeroth world problems

Sure we are staying at this $500/night hotel for free . . . but one-legged birds? Seriously? I’m calling the BBB.

We ValueTactical warriors might try and complain about such ‘problems’ on blogs and forums, but they aren’t really problems.  They are just challenges to overcome when trying to maximize value with these programs.  So take on the challenge with the help of websites like this and others!

Much to be Thankful For

Those of us in living in developed countries shouldn’t complain about first world problems like the exact temperature of our Starbucks coffee.  Likewise, those of us in the zeroth world of maximizing value, free money, and free travel shouldn’t complain about zeroth world problems.  We should be thankful that there is a ‘zeroth world!’

I said earlier that complaining about zeroth world problems is pathetic.  Fortunately when I make comments like those above, it is almost always tongue-in-cheek.  I do realize how fortunate I am.  Learning the value tactics I present on this site has allowed me to do some amazing things.

Enjoying a dinner in Frankfurt with the German exchange family I've known for 18 years.

Enjoying a dinner in Frankfurt with the German exchange family I’ve known for 18 years.

I’ve been able to visit friends on the other side of the world, reduce my commuting costs by 20%, get lots of free stuff, and extract thousands of dollars from points programs.  Nicoleen and I have been able to escape the craziness of daily life, take the family on vacations, and celebrate our anniversaries in style!

Nicoleen and I in Jamaica, 2015

10th anniversary vacation 1 of 2. Couples resort in Negril.

Sure, some of the details don’t always work out perfectly, but that’s nothing to complain about.  I am very thankful I have had the opportunities to do these things at all!

Do you want your own zeroth world problems to worry about?  E-mail me or message me on Facebook for free advice on which credit cards to get and which frequent flyer programs to join.  I’ll have you complaining about the free champagne selection on your free flight in no time!

Don’t Hoard Points


Adam Sandler’s character in “Punch Drunk Love” working on hoarding 1,000,000 miles through a loophole in a product label promotion.  He’d better spend some before the next devaluation!

In last week’s update I mentioned that I recently realized I had close to 1 million points and miles in various airline, hotel, and credit card programs.  Being a points millionaire might seem like a fun title to have, but in fact it’s dangerous.  No, I don’t mean you would need a bodyguard and a home security system; I mean your huge points and miles balances are a liability because they are only worth something when you redeem them, and redeeming them gets worth less and less as time goes by.

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Too many points saved up? Maybe . . .


1. Devaluations

Frequent flyer and hotel rewards programs routinely devalue their points by raising the average number of points needed for a given flight or hotel stay.  This is their way of accounting for inflation.  If the dollar’s real value is decreasing by 3.1% per year (the average over several decades), it means we’re spending 3.1% more nominal dollars per year.  If every dollar we spend on a co-branded credit card earns us x points or miles, we are getting more and more redemptive power as time goes by.  At the same time, the hotels’ and the airlines’ real cost of granting you the free flights and hotel nights stays the same.  To account for this they raise the points needed for their redemptions.

Then there’s the unpleasant but unavoidable fact that websites like mine, other blogs, and forums like Flyertalk (along with the general increase in communication since these programs were started) are making these programs less lucrative for the airlines, hotel chains, and credit card companies.  As more and more people learn how to maximize the value of these programs and work every angle down to the finest detail, the companies have to push back to maintain their profits.

There are a variety of factors that cause points and miles devaluations, but it’s a fact that they will continue to occur.  No one should be surprised by this.  I agree with most of the big time bloggers on the subject, where the consensus is: It’s ok to devalue your points, but don’t try to hide it from your customers.  A recent Southwest devaluation seems to have done just that.

Points and miles gradually lose their value over time, so spending them sooner rather than later is one important tactic to maximize their value.

2. Mergers

Last year U.S. Airways was absorbed into American Airlines.  Earlier this year it was announced that Marriott will be purchasing Starwood.  Each frequent flier and preferred guest program have their unique benefits and redemption tricks.  When mergers happen, these program nuances are usually lost.  Sure, you may gain some new program benefits when you lose others, but on the whole it seems like the new entity always manages to come out on top.

For example, Starwood is famous for its awesome redemption rates at hotels ($0.02 per point, compared to Hilton’s roughly $0.003 per point rate).  The fate of everyone’s Starwood points after the Marriott merger is still unknown, but the travel community seems to be preparing for a net loss of value.

While mergers are usually known well in advance, putting all your eggs in one basket – a basket that may get dumped into another basket – is probably not the best idea.

3. Known or unknown transgressions (account closure risk)

This one is tough.  Everyone has to formulate their own ethical code of conduct when dealing with credit card bonuses and points earning strategies.  I personally play it pretty safe.  I don’t get new cards every three months like clockwork, I’m not into blatant manufactured spending, and in general I try to play by the rules.  Of course I explore the limits of the rules, but that’s the fun part!  I get a lot of value from these programs and I don’t want to risk being blacklisted.  In short, I don’t want the powers that be to like me; I want them to not even notice me.

Then there are those who play hard ball.  People who spend thousands a month on manufactured spending.  People who get authorized user cards for their dogs and cats to get the bonuses some cards offer.  People who attempt tactics such as getting the bonus spend the first day they get a card, waiting for the bonus to post, and then cancelling the card before the first month’s bill closes to avoid paying an up-front annual fee.

These people really have to worry about the future of their stored points and miles!

It’s not unheard of for accounts to be summarily closed without warning.  While many people who report such closures claim they’re completely innocent, I have a feeling most of them have done something to get on the radar of the credit card companies.  Chase seems particularly ruthless toward program abusers.  There is even a huge Flyertalk thread just for reports of Chase Ultimate Rewards accounts being wiped.

While most of these cases are probably warranted, I’m sure mistakes are sometimes made and unsuspecting decent folks have their points accounts obliterated without just cause.  The fine print associated with these programs usually gives the bank total authority over your points accounts.

Even if you’re not playing with fire, the chance exists that you could fall out of disfavor with a bank or airline and lose all your stockpiled miles.  Don’t take the chance . . . DON’T HOARD POINTS!

American Airlines 777-300ER First Class JFK – LHR

This post is part of a series reviewing our 2015 Anniversary trip to Europe.  For a full list of the posts in this series, and for an overview of the trip, check out the index page.

300erstripOur entire itinerary was planned around this flight, the showpiece of the whole “surprise Nicoleen” plan.  I had actually wanted to book us business class seats (50k miles one-way) on the same flight but none were available at the saver award level for the entire summer.  First class saver seats were only 12.5k miles more however, and I wanted access to the 777-300ER’s premium class stand-up snack bar, so I searched for first class saver seats.  There were only a few saver level first class seats available, and only one date had a pair of seats.  Luckily that date worked within our other constraints, so I booked them (62k miles one-way, each).

But before I get to the flight…

Having been delayed on our ORD-JFK flight, we only had an hour to spare at JFK before boarding began for our transatlantic flight to London-Heathrow (LHF).  While Nicoleen would have been happy to stop by the Admiral’s Club for a beverage, I was determined to see both lounges we had access to, American’s Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club.

At JFK both American Airlines lounges share a lobby area in Terminal 8.  An elevator takes you from the concourse up to the lobby where the staff at the desk check your privilege and point you toward whichever lounge you have access to.  (Click here to go to American Airlines’ page on lounge access requirements.)  We were waived through to the Flagship lounge and politely reminded that we didn’t have much time before boarding would begin.

The JFK Flagship Lounge struck me as long and narrow.  It has a nice big window along one entire side, looking out over the tarmacs and runway.  My visit was brief so I didn’t get to explore every nook and cranny, nor take advantage of all the amenities.  The JFK Flagship Lounge was much more crowded than our experience at the Chicago O’Hare Flagship Lounge, but this very well could have been due to the time of day more than anything.  The food seemed more picked over and old as well, but not deplorable by any means.  I made a small snack of chicken, cheese, and olives, grabbed a beer, and scarfed it down while Nicoleen watched.  She was worried about making the flight, so she went ahead of me to board.

After my quick snack I took a walk through the Admiral’s club and found it to be even more crowded than the Flagship Lounge.  During my quick walk-through I saw no noticeable differences from the Admiral’s Club we walked through at ORD.

On to the flight…

After my brief snack at the Flagship Lounge I had to scurry down to the gate for boarding.  By the time I got there nearly everyone had boarded.  I don’t personally put much value in early boarding; I have a back issue that makes sitting painful so for me the more time spent upright, the better.  I was warmly welcomed by the attendant and shown to my seat, 1A, where I found Nicoleen settling in across from me in 1D.
777-300ER1

Seconds after sitting down I was handed a bottle of water and offered champagne, which I accepted.

The purser offered us a choice of several newspapers and quickly moved onto getting our meal orders.  As I have previously stated, I’m not much of a wine connoisseur but I do enjoy good wine (in much the same way as a dog “appreciates” a good steak – he doesn’t quite understand why it’s good, but he still likes it).  With some guidance I chose one of the whites and was not disappointed.

Another little bonus for flying in a premium cabin is the amenity kits often offered.  Although not in the cool iPad case bag I had expected from previous reports, the kit had all of the goodies I was expecting:
777-300ERamenity

The meal service
After knowing about this trip for months and having the meal choices available online for over 30 days, you’d think I should have been able to order quickly.  As it happened, I think I was still debating the food options after Nicoleen had ordered.  I settled on the Thai chicken starter, creamy carrot soup, the salad of mixed greens with artichokes and feta, the seared halibut with gremolata, and the royale chocolate mousse cake for dessert.
777-300ERfood1
777-300ERfood2
777-300ERfood3
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777-300ERfood5

I should have probably skipped the snack at the Flagship Lounge because I was fairly well full by the time the fish came, but oh well; I’m a sucker for free food!  Overall the food was pretty good.  The Thai chicken and salad were excellent, and the soup was interesting (unexpectedly spicy!), but the fish was a bit dry and rubbery and the seasoning was nothing to write home about.  The presentation was good but I found a piece of dried on food stuck to a piece of silverware…not something you’d expect to find in a first class service.

A cool feature of this first class cabin is that the footrest doubles as a jump seat, complete with seat belt, so that you can dine across from your traveling companion.  The tray table is deep enough for two place settings.  We weren’t planning on doing this however, due to Nicoleen’s baby belly.  She was plenty happy to enjoy all the room her own seat afforded her!  The purser never mentioned this as a possibility though, which was the start of a series of not being shown or offered many of the amenities this flight had available.

After dinner
According to other reviews I had read on this first class cabin, we were supposed to be offered pajamas and slippers (yes- to keep), an amenity kit in a cool bag that doubles as an iPad carrying case, and turn down service.  Nicoleen started watching a movie and I purchased the in-flight wi-fi so I could send a few e-mails saying “I’m sending this from an airplane!”

Side note: One of the biggest “problems” about flying in these cool lie-flat first and business cabins is properly splitting your time between sleeping, which is actually possible with these seats; and enjoying all the other entertainment, eating, and drinking options.  I would have loved to have milled around at the stand-up snack bar or ordered some beers and watched a movie (in comfort, for once!).  On the other hand, I had a rare opportunity to get some real, quality sleep on a flight due to the lie-flat seat.  It was tough to divide the time.  This conundrum brings to mind some valuetactics wisdom: The value of paying extra (miles or dollars) for premium cabins, especially with lie-flat seats, vastly increases as the length of the flight increases.

After a while I started wondering about the stand-up stack bar I was enamored with, and was part of the reason I wanted to fly on this aircraft.  It is located between the first and business class cabins, and when I went to check if it was operational I found the flight attendants assembling the snacks.  I was told that it was almost ready but that I didn’t have to use the lowly business class area; I could go to the first class galley for the first-class only version (which I had not read anything about).  So I went up in front of first class and found the purser and another attendant putting the finishing touches on the snacks there.
777-300ERsnack1This would have been great had I not been completely stuffed after eating about 5 meals’ worth of food in the past 12 hours!  I wanted to see the “real” stand-up snack bar though, so I deigned to walk among the plebeian masses and stepped between first and business class to that area, which had mostly the same snacks as the first class gallery but looks waaaay cooler:
777-300ERsnack2777-300ERsnack3After checking out the snack bars I decided I’d better get a few hours sleep on this overnight flight.  I was surprised we hadn’t been offered pajamas or slippers yet and I was worried that maybe American Airlines had dis-included them as part of the first class service.  I asked the purser about them and he reacted as if his memory had just been jogged.  He quickly produced a set of jammies for me and asked what size Nicoleen would prefer.  She was already dozing off so I told him I wasn’t sure, and he gave me two sets in different sizes and told me to just give her both to keep!
777-300ERpajamas

At this time the purser seemed to remember that turn down service was supposed to be included too, and offered to do so as I changed into the pajamas in the bathroom.  None of the other 6 passengers in first class received pajamas or slippers to my knowledge.

Yes, it's totally staged. I had just crawled into bed and was not sleeping.

Yes, it’s totally staged. I had just crawled into bed and was not sleeping.

Upon waking we were offered a small breakfast, which we both declined.  It was a rude awakening after only 3 hours of sleep or so, and the remainder of my flight was spent gathering up all my strewn-about belongings to prepare for landing at EuroAirport (MLH).

In the end we had an amazing time on this flight.  But I was a bit confused that I had to specifically request some of the amenities, and I was not as impressed as I should have been by the meal service.  Let’s look at all the things we weren’t told about or offered without asking:

  • Seat operation
  • Pajamas and slippers
  • Turn down service
  • Companion dining configuration
  • Stand-up snack bar

I don’t know if it was just this particular purser, crew, or just an off day for American’s service, but I finally understood why many other bloggers and reviewers talk about how American carriers are just not up to par on service in their premium cabins.

Overall first class experience
Among all the stages in our first class itinerary (the American Flagship Lounge at ORD, the Flagship Lounge at JFK, both domestic first class flights, the 1st class JFK-LHR flight, the Galleries Lounge at LHR, and the BA flight to MLH), we felt like the lowest experience to expectations ratio was on this transatlantic long-haul flight.   The service was by no means horrible, but neither was it exceptional…which it should be on an international first class flight.  I’ll never complain about flying first class for virtually no cost, but had I paid the full retail $9,821 for this booking, I would have justifiably felt a bit ripped off.  As they say the hard product delivered, but the soft product fell short.

2015 AMEX Small Business Saturday Statement Credit

In the past, we’ve seen statement credits ranging from $10 to $30 (3x $10) for purchases made with an American Express card at small businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  The purpose of Small Business Saturday is to promote smaller retailers in the community.  American Express had previously offered the statement credits as a way to expose their card users to said small retailers by offering this nice little incentive.

My 2014 Small Business Saturday haul: 5 bottles of wine, 1 bottle of rum, 6-pack of beer, some jerky and meat sticks, frozen brats and burgers, $50 in movie theater gift cards, and a kid's birthday gift (gift-wrapped, not pictured) ... all for about $11 in odd store totals.

My 2014 Small Business Saturday haul: 5 bottles of wine, 1 bottle of rum, 6-pack of beer, some jerky and meat sticks, frozen brats and burgers, $50 in movie theater gift cards, and a kid’s birthday gift (gift-wrapped, not pictured) … all for about $11 in odd store totals.

This year, however, the statement credit offered by Amex is NOTHING, $0.00, nada, zip, zilch, and zero.  Here’s the excerpt from the Small Business Saturday faq page:
SBSfail

What gives, Amex?

As to why American Express turned the faucet off, the explanation seems simple: it was very expensive for them.  Between Nicoleen’s and my Amex cards last year we got $150 in statement credits.  But like many corporate cost-saving decisions, the long term effects may prove detrimental, at least with the cohort of card users who are the type to read this blog post.  Insignificant as this Amex card perk seems, it could have been the benefit tipping the scales for many card holders to keep their Amex cards.  I personally always factored it into assessments of Amex cards.  In fact, my wife and I got Bluebird accounts last fall specifically to take advantage of the Small Business Saturday offer.  Some of these thoughts are echoed in the comments of this blog post by the points blog behemoth, ThePointsGuy.

There’s a lesson here

To frequenters of travel, deals, and points blogs this revelation is not news.  Similar blogs to mine all picked up on the story as soon as this year’s Small Business Saturday page went live a couple weeks ago.  I wanted to chime in though, and point out what I think it the take-away: Good deals are never permanent, so take advantage of them when they’re around.  Don’t wait!

I’ve made as many mistakes as smart moves in this game, but one accomplishment I am proud of is having a healthy dose of urgency when I recognize a valuable opportunity.  Note: I said “healthy dose” which doesn’t mean being desperate or frenzied.  It means prioritizing your efforts to favor exceptionally good deals or deals which are known to be temporary.

And most importantly, the elimination of the Small Business Saturday statement credits by American Express should serve as yet another reminder: don’t be surprised when a valuable situation goes away.  They all eventually do.  The key to capturing and creating value is to recognize and take advantage of good deals when they exist, and to move on and adapt when the current opportunities change or disappear.