Lifestyle

How to Get Almost-Free Airline Miles with Rocketmiles

One of the services I used during my recent trip was Rocketmiles. Rocketmiles offers airline miles in exchange for prepayment of hotel bookings. The main draw, for me, is the ability to earn United MileagePlus miles for hotel stays. And not just small bonuses — I earned 9000 United MileagePlus miles for a three-night stay at the Hilton Vienna Danube. The hotel rate was about $150 per night.

The going rate for 9000 miles on United’s website as a flight add-on is about $180-190. So, in exchange for paying a few weeks in advance, I received those miles for essentially $0. (I often use miles for business-class flights, so this starts to look even better.)

Rocketmiles is simple to use. Enter your destination, number of guests, dates of stay and airline loyalty program, and it produces a list of hotels offering at least 1,000 miles per night in exchange for your prepayment. Refundable rooms are often available (with cancellations required about a week before the stay begins), and prices are often the same as those on other travel sites.

Certain cities appear to offer better Rocketmiles deals than others, on average, though this can vary according to your dates of stay. I saw good deals in Vienna, Prague and Montreal when I was looking.

To me, Rocketmiles is a no-brainer if:

  • You’re planning to stay at a hotel anyway;
  • You’re staying with someone else, so your costs will be even lower; and
  • You can find a refundable room at a hotel that appeals to you.

In my mind, it becomes even more of a great deal if the value of miles received approaches 30% of the total hotel bill.

So, what are the caveats?

  • All hotels tend to sound good on Rocketmiles. Double-check the user reviews on TripAdvisor before you book.
  • Double-check the price on other travel sites to make sure it’s the same.
  • If you’re booking business travel, make sure you’re following your company’s procedures (i.e., are allowed to book your own hotel).

For four separate stays in November, the miles credited to my account quickly, and there were no hassles. I was treated well by the hotels and the rooms I was assigned were fine.

This service seems a little too-good-to-be-true, but I’ll be using it as long as it’s available.

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Sabbatical Phase 2: Coworking and Bootstrapping

As I gear up for Phase Two of my adventures, I feel pulled in different directions. My primary goal is to make things that are helpful, useful improvements to the world. I’m conflicted about how and where to do it, specifically whether to try coworking, and how to bootstrap/fund until those things either succeed or fail.

Dilemma 1: Where to Work

On coworking, I’m an introvert. I enjoy meeting people, but a day in a noisy space leaves me needing to rest and recharge. I do my best work in focused, productive bursts, either alone or with a small team of people. (I’m also good at political wrangling and large meetings, but that skill is less useful for my current activities, at least right now.)

I’m not sure I see the benefit of paying money to sit in a noisy space that saps my concentration and energy.

Fortunately, I have alternatives. On Thursdays and weekends, I can visit the Hacker School space. This space is special: It manages to be quiet and focused for much of the day even while full of people, which astonishes me but also makes me extraordinarily grateful. As a bonus, it’s a great place to find lunch or dinner partners for non-work breaks.

Tomorrow, I’ll be trying free space donated by an incubator for Hacker School alums to continue working on cool projects. I love this idea and look forward to seeing how it goes, especially because it requires one-day-at-a-time sign-up rather than an ongoing five-day-a-week commitment.

About the only thing I don’t gain from these spaces is a permanent “home” for my work. What I would pay for is a service that provides office trappings without actually being an office. Things like a non-P.O.-box mailing address, faxing, copying and printing, supplies like envelopes and a receptionist and phone numbers (which I could forward to my cell phone), with conference rooms rentable by the hour for meetings. But no work desks — I could take care of that part by going to quiet-ish coffeeshops or working from home, wherever home is.

Does anyone know of a service like this?

Dilemma 2: How to Bootstrap/Fund

On the bootstrapping/funding side, I could continue without focusing on money at all — and it’s been a blessing to do that for the past six months at Hacker School and while traveling — but I feel like that might be short-sighted. I can extend my options if I earn money by freelancing, consulting, investing, fundraising or seeking fellowships.

One thing I don’t want to do is become too focused on making money at the expense of actually doing things and making things. So I’ll need to find the right balance, and that will be a process of trial and error. Ideally, some of the things I do and make will become sources of income and possibly allow me to raise funds or get fellowships. But I don’t want to force an outcome; I want to experiment, make useful things, and see what sticks.

I suppose I have a sabbatical bucket list. If I do a self-check, I’ve done some interesting things so far (though not all of the things on this list). Travel to places I’ve never been. Attend Hacker School. Make YouTube videos. Write a blog. Write an eBook. Make apps and plugins. Make websites. Make training courses. Be an e-tutor. Speak up on Twitter. Present at conferences and meetups. Attend different types of conferences. Try crowdfunding. Make or contribute to some real-world products.

This list sometimes makes me feel disorganized or scattered. But if I think about my mission statement, it’s pretty clear:

Experiment, make useful things, see what sticks. Keep doing the things that stick. Be myself and see what happens.

My First Thanksgiving Friday

I usually work on Black Friday. It’s a trade-off I make so that I can take off the week between Christmas and New Year’s without looking like a holiday hog.

This year, I still will be working on Black Friday. I need to install OS X Yosemite on a computer stored in a closet at my parents’ house, so I can do some testing on it. But this form of working feels completely different.

I’m doing this voluntarily, because it works with my schedule. I have no desire to shop, because I am missing that gene and instead have the gene that commands me to wander around the world with three bags of stuff. So I’d rather be working while my family is at the mall.

I admit I enjoyed the empty-office feeling on Black Friday in past years. I felt productive in that space, surrounded by silence and equipment designed for ten times as many people.

But I enjoy the feeling of being near family more. It’s a nice change, and I value the time I’ll spend at breakfast with them this morning, sipping tea and feeling no urgency to rush back to New York City and occupy an office-building for the sake of occupying it.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, with no agenda other than food, family and friends. To extend it beyond a single day is a gift, and I’m grateful for it this year.

New York Is Cheap – Here’s Why

New York is cheap.

I know that sounds insane. New York constantly races San Francisco for the title of Most Expensive City in the U.S.

But it’s not true if you don’t have kids.

The Contrarian View of NYC Costs

Apartment rents are out of control, it’s true. This is no surprise to anyone who lives here. Renting an apartment can mean paying a broker fee totaling 15% of the yearly rent.

But consider all of the expenses a New Yorker simply does not need to have (compared with commuting from, say, New Jersey):

1.) Car payment (let’s be kind and say $300 a month).

2.) Car insurance (about $100 a month).

3.) Gas for the car (about $200 a month).

4.) Daily train commute (about $300 a month).

5.) Parking at the train (about $250 a month).

6.) Car repairs and maintenance (about $100 a month).

We just saved approximately $1250 per month. Now what happens?

Well, if you live in Manhattan in a no-fee studio apartment that costs $2500 a month (feasible even in high-priced neighborhoods), you simply re-allocate that $1250 into your rent. So, you are living the same as someone who pays $1250 a month in rent and commutes to the city. New York is looking better than the suburbs already.

Now let’s say you live in Brooklyn, perhaps in Greenpoint or Boerum Hill or Red Hook, and you pay $1800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Now you are living the same as someone who pays $550 a month in rent and commutes to the city.

Keeping the Price Down

Here are 7 major tips for making New York City more affordable:

1.) Rent a no-fee apartment. There are plenty of no-fee apartments, including luxury apartments in Manhattan. Don’t pay a broker fee unless your employer is reimbursing you — it’s 15% of your first year’s rent and is a completely unnecessary expense.

2.) Use StreetEasy. It’s an indispensable tool to research buildings and find real no-fee apartments. If you’re on a budget, check out the Listings Project.

3.) Consider less well-known Brooklyn neighborhoods. Greenpoint and Boerum Hill are much more affordable than Brooklyn Heights. The Upper East Side in Manhattan is also relatively affordable.

4.) Are you okay with roommates? If so, you can save money and probably get a much nicer apartment.

5.) Don’t bring a car. Don’t bring a car. Don’t bring a car.

6.) If at all possible, start your lease in late fall or winter (mid-November through mid-February). You’ll save hundreds of dollars per month on rent for the life of your lease, because rents tend to rise and fall seasonally in NYC. Occasionally there are crazy deals on apartments that become available over the December holidays, because nobody wants to move then.

7.) Conversely, avoid the late spring and summer months (mid-May through mid-September) for a lease start date.

Good luck and enjoy the city!

Re-Entry

Re-entry is hard.

I landed in New York on Thursday, back from Vienna, zero jet-lag and raring to go. Dropped back into my New York life with a swish like a basketball in a net from halfway across a stadium.

Spent a weekend in upstate, enjoying the woods and hills, then booted up the computer Monday and thought, now what?

Now everything. Now I do everything I think of, for the next few months, to see what sticks and what I enjoy and what I will discard and how Phase Two of my sabbatical/adventure will play out.

Phase One was exploratory and learning-focused. Phase Two will be doing-focused. Phase Three will be I-don’t-know-what. More traveling? More doing? More of both?

I was jet-lagged after all. I kept falling asleep at 7:30. I caught a cold too, which blurred my brain-waves and had me huddled in the office room in my aunt’s house earlier this week, cradling tea and listening to the rain. Learning HTML5, which is easy but easily overlooked so I decided to get it done. Catching up again on Sam Altman’s startup class. Finishing my Venture Deals class.

Finishing the initial-learning part of this journey is scary, because I love learning and at the same time I use it as a crutch to keep me from doing things. If I only knew more. But I’ve learned that I only need to know the minimum possible to get it done at a point in time. Then I can learn more, and improve, and iterate.

I can learn more later. I’ll always be learning more. But I need to start to do more, interspersed with learning, and pair the two like a gas pedal and a brake in a car. Using only one or the other leads to a fiery crash or to going nowhere. Using the two together leads to anywhere a road can go.

The Traveller’s Guide to Budapest in 3 Days

Statue near Buda CastleBudapest is a mass of old buildings, made new again stone by stone, step by step, address by address.

Modern boutiques share space with old, abandoned mansions, boarded-up windows next to sleek glass.

Two cities face each other across the river, united and unique. Buda is a quiet town of rolling hills, castles and green spaces; Pest is a vibrant district of restaurants, traffic and shops. Bridges strung in lights connect the two across the Danube River.

I spent three days in Budapest last week and wish I’d spent ten. Here are tips to make the most of your journey, no matter how much time you spend there.

Tips for Travellers

Watch out for traffic and bikes. Cars will not necessarily stop for you if you jaywalk, and some intersections are extremely busy. Bike path signs are clearly painted on the sidewalk — pay attention to them! Not that I learned this from experience or anything…

Visit the Museum of Terror. More similar to a war memorial than a simple museum, the Museum of Terror occupies the former Nazi and Soviet intelligence service headquarters on Andrassy Street in Pest. The aim is to remind people what happened here and how it ended. One of the most effective museums I’ve ever visited — emotional, horrifying and informative. Afterward, walk down the street to Heroes Square, where statues of ancient Hungarian rulers stand guard.

Statues in Heroes Square

Statues in Heroes Square

Check out the schedule at the Hungarian State Opera house. I saw a matinee production of Falstaff, which was enjoyable and far less expensive than the Vienna State Opera. Good single seats were available one day prior, although the ballet at night was sold out. The opera house is old, gorgeous and majestic — worth seeing.

Eat breakfast at Gerloczy’s. Just behind City Hall is a small restaurant at a triangular intersection serving some of the best food in Budapest. Breakfast isn’t a big meal here, so it’s a real find. I had simple food: muesli with yogurt and an almond roll, which was hot from the oven and full of sweet almond paste. So delicious I returned the next morning too.

Get Hungarian forints and don’t rely on euros. I used a money exchange at a tourist information point and paid just over 2 euros in commission to change 50 euros, but that commission stays steady up to about 200 euros. Many businesses take only forints or credit cards, and if you want to use public transportation, you may need forints to buy tickets or passes.

Visit a spa. Because I was only in Budapest for three nights, I didn’t get around to visiting a spa, but if I return I’d love to try the Gellert Bath or Szechenyi Bath.

Where to Stay

Fisherman's Bastion in Buda

Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda, overlooking Pest

This decision depends on your personality. I stayed at the St. George Hotel near Buda Castle because I got a great price on Booking.com. It was beautiful, near Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the entire city. All of the rooms are actually suites, with a living/dining room, kitchenette, bathroom and bedroom. Furnishings are antique-style and gorgeous. In the morning, the number 16 bus (not the 16A) took me directly to the center of Pest within 15 minutes.

If you’d rather stay in the center of nightlife and action, Pest is more suitable. To avoid ending up somewhere loud, check out the reviews and neighborhood online before booking. One promising option is the Gerloczy Rooms de Lux, above Gerloczy’s restaurant. I picked up a brochure while eating breakfast, and the rooms look beautiful. It also has 5 stars on TripAdvisor.

If you’re more inclined toward Airbnb, there are some fantastic, affordable places on offer. Because I was only staying for three nights, I went with a hotel, but I’d love to return for a longer stretch of time and rent an Airbnb.

Getting to Budapest

There’s an airport for travellers arriving from a distance, but getting to Budapest by rail is easy from Vienna, and that’s what I did. The Austrian OEBB train service runs every two hours from Vienna Wien Meidling station to Budapest Keleti station. The trip takes three hours, and the train travels through flat farmland (it’s not an alpine train).

Interestingly, I found a flexible fare that was cheaper than the restricted-schedule fare, so don’t assume the “SparSchiene” tickets are always cheaper.

If you want to reserve specific seats on the train, you’ll need a 6-euro reservation, sold alongside the basic train ticket, although these trains are rarely sold out.

Traveling within Budapest

Budapest has an excellent public transit system, and a map of the main tram and bus lines is available, although I couldn’t find a full bus map. The best option for me was to buy a 24-hour transit card that allowed unlimited trips on all trams and buses. It cost less than 2000 Hungarian forints (about 6 euros). If I’d known about this card’s existence sooner, I’d have gotten the 48-hour card instead of paying for some individual bus trips.

Taxis tend to be relatively expensive but are useful for late-night trips or for transport to and from the train station or airport.

The Vibe

I loved Budapest. It was beautiful, modern, evolving and dynamic, with great food and the sense of a city on the rise. Since leaving, I’ve been thinking about returning to continue sightseeing and settle into the rhythm of the city, as I did during my 10 days in Florence.

I’ve also read about the city’s nascent startup culture and would love to meet some of the entrepreneurs who are making Budapest their base. With its combination of affordability, things to do, beautiful scenery and good Internet (much better than in Florence or Tuscany), Budapest’s momentum is promising, and it’s simply a great place to visit and explore.

One Brick at a Time – Peace

I had no Internet connectivity when I wrote this post and the prior one, so I’m posting them now. This one is from Sunday:

A peaceful Tuscan hillscape at the farmhouseI wake up in the quiet. I’m getting used to it.

I open the window and smell wood smoke, leaves and sharp, clear air. If clean has a smell, this is it.

I boot up the computer. Still no Internet. It annoys me but less than it did last week.

I open TextEdit and start to write. Yesterday I read a book I bought two years ago. With no Internet, I’m plowing through my accumulated Kindle books.

The mountain view through the bathroom window is hazy blue, with low clouds filling the valley.

I hear other people in the house stirring, in other apartments. In my apartment there is peace.

I make the bed, smoothing the duvet so it looks welcoming again.

I start water for tea, steaming hot in the cool air.

I leave my socks off so I feel the brick floor rough under my feet. I like feeling each step as I take it.

An Island in Tuscany – Solitude

Saturday:

Tuscany viewI feel like a girl on an island, except the island is a hill in Tuscany.

I go outside at night and listen to the leaves rustle. Wild boars grunt in the olive groves. A pile of wood next to the house stands fallow until winter. A cool breeze slips sharp through my sweater.

Listening to the world is an experience I welcome in life.

Sleeping in pitch dark, in the quiet of the old farmhouse, terrified me at first but now is welcoming.

I no longer leave the light on at night.

I dream of strange things that I can’t remember in the morning.

I watch the leaves turn from green to gold over the hills surrounding the farmhouse. I eat the fruit from the garden and find I can cook well after all. I learn because I have to learn.

I deal with slow Internet and procrastination and cabin fever and self-doubt. I try to move enough every day that I do not become totally sedentary.

I am stranded. I am frustrated. But I am also happy.

Waiting for Tuscany

I’m struggling with Tuscany. The rhythm of it, the late summer that fought against giving way to fall, the bees and landlockedness and slow pace.

I’m not a slow-paced person. I came here, in part, to experience the pace while remaining productive.

But I find I’m intensely productive in spurts, even as Tuscany conspires to create spaces where productivity is impossible.

I struggle to be okay with this.

I waited an hour for the train on Friday. I wanted to go to Florence. After an hour passed and the delay stretched from five minutes to fifty, the announcer stated the train would not come at all, and the next train would be in two more hours. I left.

I walked to a nearby cafe. Sat down. Had a pastry and a glass of sparkling water. Seethed.

My host was returning in four and a half hours. Until then, I was stranded in town with nothing to do.

I added the tally of hours spent and yet-to-be-spent waiting during the trip. I calculated that I had spent roughly three days waiting out of 20 days in Italy. The reasons varied. Waiting for trains. Waiting for cars. Waiting for paperwork. Waiting for doctors related to my ankle-sprain.

All of the restaurants were closed between lunch and dinner, so a hearty meal was out. There was no Wi-Fi, so the Internet was out. I opened my Kindle app and read The Four-Hour Work Week.

I’ve put off reading this book many times. Its title doesn’t appeal to me because I have zero desire to work only four hours per week. I want to work a lot, make a lot of things, and be productive in society.

As I read the book, I realized that is (sort of) actually the message. Service is one of the themes of the book. I feel it could be a stronger theme, but it’s there. And that’s really where I’m at with this wandering-the-world/learning thing. I want to get to where I can work on things that interest me and be of service, in a different way than I was during my prior job. There, I pushed hard against giant gears to get them moving. Now, I want to create new gears.

So I struggle when the Wi-Fi struggles. I envision lying in a hammock, happily streaming edX videos while learning about solar energy. Instead I plug in my Ethernet cable and hope the network is functional. If it is, I often squander it playing games or reading news — a messed-up reaction that could only come from my lizard brain.

In fact, I get more done when I unplug the Ethernet cable entirely. Then I focus, write, code and read. Then I feel good about myself and this trip.

The important things are good. I’m here, I haven’t re-injured my ankle since Cinque Terre two weeks ago, and I love the scenery of Tuscany. Almost everyone I’ve met has been amazingly understanding, friendly and welcoming. The food is good, I cook home-grown organic vegetables almost daily in my kitchen, and the hosts at the farmhouse where I’m staying are wonderful. We had a traditional Tuscan dinner last week in the host’s kitchen, and it was a wonderful evening full of laughter and conversation and good food and wine. So I have nothing to complain about.

I struggle. And I let go. I left the cafe and walked through the small town, stopping for gelato and then meandering along a path beside the Arno River. I crossed a small bridge and found a medieval tower standing beside it, a landmark for the town. I walked some more, back and forth along the path, shopping for groceries and visiting the cafe again. This time I relaxed instead of seething, and the patrons laughed at my expression, with my head against the wall and my eyes closed. “Are you tired?” he asked. “No, I’m just relaxing,” I said. And I sort of was telling the truth.

Each night, I huddle in the farmhouse, getting ready for sleep, wondering what tomorrow will bring. I know the trains will probably not run on time. I know the schedule will probably not be what I expect. I know I cannot predict how the day will unfold, or how much I will get done, or whether I will be able to check email at any given time. I know the food will be good, and I know the day will be beautiful, and I know the hosts are great people and I’ll have a great day if I can just relax and let life lead me.

It’s funny how the more I surrender to that, the more I get done.

A Tuscany Farmhouse: Peace, Time and Space

Tuscan farmhouse

The main room of the apartment

I wake up in a Tuscany farmhouse. Slide my feet onto the floor, smooth brick not quite cold yet in October. Open the wooden shutters, which cover windows of different sizes, and look out at a haze of mist and rain. I can hear rain on the roof, muffled by the wooden ceiling in my apartment.

In the kitchen, I attempt to figure out the gas stove, which tends to ignite in a large puff of flame. Gas stoves are not my strong suit, but forced to adjust, I succeed in heating a large pot of water for tea. I use a ladle to spoon the brewed tea into a mug. There is a teapot, but it would make only eight ounces of tea, so I use a pot and brew about 40 ounces. I think it’s decaffeinated, but my Italian comprehension leaves me unsure.

Breakfast

I arrived yesterday with no food, so the owner gave me a basket of vegetables from the organic garden and a breakfast basket. There’s bread, cereal, milk, yogurt, butter, pecorino cheese, honey, jam, crackers, pasta, mandarins, tomatoes, apples, garlic, onions, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and fresh cannellini beans. Truly, I cannot complain. I have everything I need to eat for days.

I’m living on the second floor of the farmhouse, in one of four apartments. I listen to the silence of the Tuscan countryside with utter contentment and the tiniest bit of panic. I’m not sure what I’ll do here, but I feel like I have all the time and space I need to think and decide.

View from window

Peace, quiet, time and space

I watch a Google Hangout for a NovoEd class I’m in, catch up with the lectures from Sam Altman’s startup class, finish reading a book I’d started, cook some cannellini beans for lunch, and write this blog post. I feel amazed and happy that only half the day is gone — with few distractions, I’m left to my own devices and find I’m neither stressed nor bored. I see a box of spa products in the bathroom that I would like to try. Perhaps later.

Tonight is pizza night, hosted by the owner for her guests. I’m really looking forward to getting to know her better and hearing her stories. Last night, after I arrived and before I had any food, I met the next-door neighbors/guests and they invited me for dinner. At that point I was really hungry, so I appreciated the help, as well as the good conversations, good food and open door.

Rainy Morning

This morning at breakfast

I imagine more people used to live like this, in the quiet, with animals nearby, trees and fresh food. I can see the benefits. It’s refreshing just to sit and breathe here. I know I couldn’t do it forever — I’d keep wondering, “What’s next?” like I always do — but it’s far preferable to a cube-based existence with no variety or autonomy. (I’m not saying there are no jobs with variety or autonomy; there clearly are many, and I’ve had some of them, but in too many industries and for too many people it’s not the norm.)

Onward to more things I’ve meant to do, surrounded by peace, time and space.