An easy way to make $20 and earn 3.5-12+% cashback for travel and other purchases

TopCashBack has become my new favorite website, and has already saved me over $163.19 in the last day alone.

Basically, the site has affiliate partnerships with hundreds of businesses (including Hotels.com, Hilton, Marriott, Amazon, and eBay) and gives the money they make from affiliate sales to you (TopCashBack instead makes money through advertisements).

Though the actual cashback amounts will change based on affiliate deals, this is what the website current looks like (featuring only a few of the many deals):

TopCashBack

I was able to get 12% cashback on a laptop purchased and 8% cashback for a hotel stay booked through Hotels.com (using the link provided by TopCashBack). All purchases posted to my account within a few hours (although payment takes 5-14 weeks, at least with the purchases I’ve made).

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This is worth signing up for on its own. But to sweeten the deal, TopCashBack is offering new users $20 for signing up for an account before 2am on March 17, 2019 (which is paid after you earns $10 in cashback). This is an incredible promotion, even for people who don’t travel much, since you can earn cashback from places like Amazon, Banana Republic, eBay, and more.

To get this promotion, you need the referral link of a current user (note that I’ll be compensated $10 for each signup). You can signup using this link:

 SIGN UP FOR TOPCASHBACK

Staying in one of the top 25 hotels in the world for $81/night

A few weeks ago, TripAdvisor released their annual list of the top 25 hotels in the world. While scrolling through the list (which features some amazing properties!), I was taken aback when I saw #14 — Hotel Amira in Istanbul.

I stayed at the Hotel Amira back in September 2016, and I remember booking the hotel because it looked cute, had great reviews, and was cheap (I paid $81/night before taxes).

When I think of the top 25 hotels in the world, the first thing I think of is “expensive.” But when I think about my stay at the Hotel Amira, including the level of service I received, I think it makes sense that they would be listed in the top 25.

Although I booked on Hotels.com, I was somehow greeted within a day via e-mail by a concierge at the hotel, letting me know that they’d be available to assist in whatever way possible. Because it was my first time to Istanbul, they were nice enough to give me detailed instructions on how to find the property.

From the second I arrived at the hotel, I felt pampered. My room was beautiful and clean, the location was amazing and just off the water, and the rooftop area had incredible views (including of the Hagia Sophia). The gym was small, but well-equipped and never busy.

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Sunset from Hotel Amira’s rooftop

Reception was always very pleasant and even set me up with the perfect day tour. Breakfast was so delicious, including fresh honey off a comb.

Looking back, it was one of the nicest hotel stays I’ve ever had, and reading through the review on TripAdvisor, you’ll see that others feel the same way.

It looks like prices have gone up (I’m finding $135/night) since my stay, but that could be for a few reasons. First, being named one of the top hotels in the world certainly can’t hurt. Second, I went to Turkey right after the coup attempt and also shortly after an airport shooting, which may have affected my rate.

That said, even at $135/night, Hotel Amira is a steal and, if TripAdvisor’s top 25 hotel designation isn’t enough, I would recommend it to anyone visiting Istanbul!

My strategy for maximizing Hilton Honors points and free award nights

If you read my blog often enough, you’ll know that I’m a recent convert to the Hilton-portfolio brand of hotels. After signing up for a Hilton American Express business credit card which gave me complimentary gold status, and after a few bed Airbnb experiences, I decided to give Hilton a try.

As a remote worker, I was generally opposed to hotels. My main concern was lack of a kitchen — when I’m traveling, I like to cook my own breakfast because it can often take an hour or two to find a place and get served in a new city (plus, I’m pretty cheap when it comes to food, as I would rather spend that money on travel). However, Hilton since gold status comes with free breakfast, this made me less anxious about switching over.

By staying at Hilton properties more and also with credit card bonuses, I’ve managed to rack up a lot of points and a free weekend night (about to hit my second one!).

While there is some controversy around their actual value, Hilton points are valued at ~0.6 cents per point. That said, with my strategy below, I’ve been able to redeem them for as much as 2 cents per point using some of the strategies below.

For the free weekend night, it’s given as a yearly bonus to certain credit card holders (with the Aspire card), and for those with the business card, you can get this after spending $15,000 in a calendar year (if you spend $40,000, you get 2). This can be used on a standard room and can net you a value of over $750, if used correctly.

How to maximize the value of your Hilton points

1) Get a credit card with complimentary Hilton status

If possible, you should sign up for a Hilton credit card that comes with complimentary status — this includes the Hilton American Express business card or the Hilton Aspire card. The main reason for doing this is that elite members receive their 5th award night free (meaning you’ll only need to pay 4 award nights for a 5 night stay).

Which leads me to my second strategy…

2) Wait until you have enough points to book 4 nights (so you can get your 5th night free)

Rather than redeeming points for a night or two at a hotel, if you do obtain Hilton status, you’re better off waiting until you have enough points (and time) to book 4 nights somewhere so that you can get the 5th one for free. The great thing about Hilton Honors is that it’s very easy to earn a lot of points very quickly, and the credit card bonus sign-ups are very nice right now (some are in the 125,000-150,000). A night at a top property is 95,000 miles (more on that below).

Hilton also regularly has sales on points where they give you a 100% point bonus on anything purchased, which can help you get your balance to where it needs to be. This trick can save you as much as 120,000 points for a standard room.

3) Use points at luxury properties

The best way to maximize your points (aside from staying for 5 nights), is to use them for standard rooms at usually pricey properties. This includes the following hotels:

  • Conrad Maldives
  • The Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort
  • Conrad Tokyo
  • Waldorf Astoria Maldives
  • Conrad Koh Samui
  • Conrad Bora Bora

A standard room at most of these hotels will be 95,000 points, which means you’ll need 360,000 points to get the best redemption.

How to maximize the value of your Hilton free weekend night

If you have the Hilton Aspire card, or if you have the Hilton Business or another card that entitles you to a free weekend night after a certain spend threshold, you should strategy 3 above to maximize your points (i.e., trying to stay at luxury properties).

Keep in mind that the free weekend night only applies to standard rooms, and some hotels don’t have any so-called “standard” rooms (here’s a list of excluded properties– but, luckily, all of the above are not excluded).

So far, my redemptions have been for the Grand Wailea and the Conrad Maldives. I wrote about the Grand Wailea here and am definitely excited to check out the Conrad Maldives later this year!

What’s your favorite way to use Hilton points and free award nights? Let me know in the comments.

Should you stay in Ka’anapali or Wailea during whale season on Maui?

Whale season on Maui runs from December 15th-May 15th every year. During this time, Maui has the largest concentration of humpback whales on the planet, which makes this already incredible destination a can’t-miss.

Last week, I went to Maui for the second time during whale season. Although Kauai is currently my favorite Hawaiian island, Maui offers a better chance to see the whales (who are in town to give birth and mate before journeying back up to Alaska).

There are two main resort/hotel areas on Maui — Ka’anapali on the northwest coast, and Wailea on the southwest coast. On my last trip to Maui, I stayed exclusively in Ka’anapali. This trip, I split my time between Ka’anapli and Wailea, and wanted to review the pro’s and con’s of staying in both.

Ka’anapli

Ka’anapali is home to a number of resorts, including Marriott, Hyatt, Westin, and Sheraton. The Westin actually has 3 resorts in Maui and, thanks to a friend redeeming points, I spent the first 3 nights at The Westin Maui Resort & Spa Ka’anapali.

The property is gorgeous, the staff is warm, and there is a pool with a (really fun!) water slide.

But my absolutely favorite part of staying here was that you can see whales breaching pretty much any time you look out at the ocean. Seriously. I’m emphasizing that last part because words can’t express how amazing it is.

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Sunset from outside my hotel in Ka’anapli. If you look closely at the horizon (towards the right), you can see a whale breaching.

From Ka’anapali, you can see the islands of Moloka’i and Lanai, and there were a lot more breaches looking towards Lanai (this is apparently because the water is more shallow, which attracts more whales).

Despite being able to see whales from the beach, I decided to go on a whale watching tour, which left from Lahaina. Lahaina (which is where a lot of the whale tours leave from) is located 10-15 minutes away from Ka’anapli, and about 30-45 minutes away from Wailea.

Ka’anapali is also a super cute area, with shops, and outdoor mall, and beautiful beaches. The biggest con here is that, during whale season, the waves are very strong and it’s difficult to actually swim in the ocean water by Ka’anapli.

Wailea

After 3 nights in Ka’anaplai, we switched hotels and headed down to the Grand Wailea, a massive Waldorf Astoria property located on the beach between the Four Season and Marriott. I used a free Hilton weekend night from my Hilton American Express card to book the first night, and was able to get 25% off my second night using Hilton’s price match guarantee.

Wailea is home to the fanciest hotels on the island, including Grand Wailea itself, the Ritz Carlton, Fairmont, Andaz, and Four Seasons. Staying in both Ka’anapli and Wailea, which are only about 45-minute apart, actually felt like completely separate vacations. In Wailea, you have a different view, looking out to the south side of Lanai and to and island called Kaho’olawe.

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View from my room at the Grand Wailea.

Although Wailea was beautiful, in my 3 days there, I didn’t see a single whale breach from the hotel (even with an ocean-view room). I think I saw one while eating lunch on the way to the airport, but I’m not 100% sure. If I had stayed in Wailea the entire time and didn’t take a whale boat tour, I wouldn’t have even known it was whale season.

Verdict: Even though I had an amazing time in Wailea, I would recommend staying in Ka’anapli during whale season. The opportunity to see dozens of whales breach each hour is too great to pass up, and the proximity to the whale watching tours makes this spot super convenient.

Is it worth upgrading to business class on United’s direct flight between San Francisco and Tahiti?


As a member, you now get better savings when you book direct.

United recently started direct service between San Francisco, California and Tahiti, French Polynesia (airport code: PPT).

Earlier this month, I took advantage of the flight, and was able to snag an incredible deal for both flight and 4 nights in an over-water bungalow.

I was able to fly economy over and business back, so wanted to share my experiences in case you’re considering taking the same flight, and don’t know whether the upgrade to business class is worth it. (Unfortunately, I lost some of the pictures I took, so you’ll have to rely on my account below!).

The verdict: It depends.

As a lawyer, “it depends” or “maybe” is perhaps my favorite response to any question. But it’s especially true here.

Economy service, particularly is you are in Economy Plus, is decent. The flight is roughly 8 hours each way, which can be difficult for a business class flight — practically speaking, it meant that after dinner service, there was about 3.5 hours to sleep before breakfast service started. While United offers you the opportunity to skip breakfast (you can tell them before you fall asleep), I’ve found that even with an eye mask and ear plus, I can’t sleep through the smell of cooked food.

On the flight over, you’ll leave SFO in the early afternoon and arrive in PPT at around 8pm, which means that you’ll be sleeping soon after you land, anyway. I did this leg in economy, and am glad I did.

On the way back, you’ll leave at night and land in SFO early in the morning, which means you may benefit more from a bed (particularly if you want to go into work the next morning).

I was a little nervous about the 2-2-2 business setup on the business flight, but the new Polaris seats were really comfortable, and I love the Saks Fifth Avenue products. While I haven’t confirmed this, I think the new SFO to PPT route is pretty coveted and that the flight attendants working it were assigned to the routes based on seniority, so you can expect some pretty great service on the flight.

If your only (reasonable) option for flying to Tahiti is on economy, don’t let that deter you. But if you have the means or found a great deal in business, it’s definitely a nice way to treat yo’ self.

Drug-sniffing dog overdoses on ecstasy while screening passengers boarding EDM party cruise ship

A drug-sniffing K-9 working for the Brevard County Sherrif’s Office in Florida was given an anti-overdose medication after falling ill while screening passengers boarding Holy Ship! — an electronic dance music (EDM) party taking place on the Nowegian Epic.

According to a report by Newsweek, the dog (Jake), “started having some problems with balance and had some type of seizure incident of some sort, was showing effects of having inhaled some substance. They administered the Narcan and got [him] to the vet.”

Jake is expected to make a full recovery and one man was arrested related to the incident.

Air Canada flight turns back halfway to Hawaii, compensates passengers with $10 food vouchers

I get it, airplanes sometimes have issues mid-air (which is nothing any traveler really wants to hear).

That said, some Air Canada passengers had a pretty rough experience on Christmas Eve this year when a flight headed from Vancouver to Hawaii was turned around halfway to Hawaii due to a mechanical issue that was “not an emergency.”

The passengers eventually ended up in Hawaii 15 hours after originally scheduled and, in an attempt to make up for it, Air Canada offered these passengers $10 in food vouchers.

However, according to Dr. Gabor Lukacs, the founder and coordinator of Air Passenger Rights,  passengers on the flight could be eligible for damages worth thousands of dollars, in accordance with Canada’s Carriage By Air Act.

“Passengers still have to prove they’ve suffered losses, but they are liable for up to $8,700,” he said.

Since the plane was halfway to Hawaii, I’m wondering why they couldn’t fix the mechanical issues there.

Definitely not a pleasant way to fly, but hopefully these individuals enjoyed an amazing Christmas on Maui (particularly since it’s whale season!).