Category Archives: Frugal Fun

Travel Hacking: Round One

Until recently, I have never tried travel hacking.  As a member of the financial independence community, I have not looked favorably at credit cards.  I saw them as a way for undisciplined people to spend more than they earn.  In my opinion, I saw them as tools that banks use to hack high fees and interest payments out people who have fallen victim to materialism.

My view on credit was to only borrow when it was a must and to pay it back as quickly as possible.  Since I started working full-time, I only used credit when I needed it.  However, I knew that having a high credit score was important.

My wife and I both have high credit scores but have not borrowed much.  I once had a car loan that I paid off in my early 20’s.  When I went to college, I paid cash for my first two years and took out student loans for my Junior and Senior years.  My wife and I also took out a home equity loan to remodel our house.  That is currently our only debt.

For years, my wife and I only had one credit card.  We used it for travel, shopping on Amazon, and for other purchases when a credit card was more convenient than cash.  We have always just used a basic bank card that paid 1% cash back.

I did not know if 1% was good or not.  I was more interested in using the card when it was required and just paid off the balance every month.  At the end of the year, I would get $500 back and just use the rewards money for holiday bills.

The focus of my personal finance management and writing has been saving and investing.  My approach has been to focus on career growth, saving as much as possible, and capture average market returns by investing in index funds.  Hacking has not been on my radar.

Over the past year, I have started reading more and more blogs about people who are taking two or more vacations per year for free.  Since some of the most trusted bloggers promote it, I decided to read more about it.  It was not until I attended a meet-up in New York City where a group of bloggers from Rockstar Finance got together.  At this event, I got turned on to travel hacking and decided to give it a shot.

The idea of taking a vacation or two per year for free excited me.  We travel anyway, so why not enjoy our trips for free.  I started to do some research.  I also took the Travel Miles 101 online course.  Travel Miles 101 is a comprehensive course that explains all that a person needs to start travel hacking.  I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about travel hacking.

After taking the travel miles 101 class and reading many other blogs, the consensus card to start with is the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  The Chase Sapphire Preferred card has a $0 introductory annual fee for the first year.  The annual fee after that is $95 per year, but as part of the hack, you set it up to never pay that fee.

So, what do you get with the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card?  If you spend $4,000 in 3 months, you earn 50,000 bonus points.  Those 50,000 bonus points add up to some nice rewards. The redemption value is worth $625 in airfare, $625 towards hotels, or $300 in cash.

There are other nice benefits With the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  A cardholder will receive 2X points on travel purchases.  When you dine out, a cardholder receives 2X points on restaurant purchases worldwide.  Every other purchase equals 1 point per $1 spent.

Based on all of the suggestions, I opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.   In order to hit the target of $4,000 to earn the points, I set up all of our monthly household bills to be charged to this card. Since it was November, it did not take long to hit the $4,000 with all of the extra holiday spending.

After I reached the $4,000, my wife opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  We followed the same plan and used the card for all of our bills and spending.  It took us less than two months for us to hit $4,000 on her card.

Now for the fun stuff.  It was time to redeem our points.  We decided that we wanted to visit Dublin, Ireland this summer.  To redeem the points, there is a portal to access the travel section on the Chase Dashboard.  It is as easy as booking a flight on any other travel website.

We decided to fly out of Philadelphia (PHL) and wanted a non-stop flight.  Based on the value of our points, these tickets were going to only cost us about $150 in out of pocket expenses.  Before we booked our flight, I decided to check if there was a cheaper flight out of the Newark Airport (EWR).  I typed in our travel dates and a round-trip ticket from Newark to Dublin on Air Lingus was only $605 per ticket.  We booked our flights and had points to spare.  It was that easy.

I do not know if travel hacking is for everyone.  If you are not good at paying your bills every month, travel hacking might not be for you.  If you end up with a balance and have to pay the high interest, the credit card company is actually hacking you.  You also need to have the required spend to earn the points.  If you do not spend enough to qualify, you should not just spend money you otherwise would not spend to just earn points.

Does travel hacking hurt your credit score?  I have only opened two cards, so I do not have any personal evidence to share with you.  Based on many other blogs, there is minimal change and most credit scores increase over time.  The most important thing is paying your balance every month.

If you are responsible for paying your monthly bills and enjoy traveling, you should look into travel hacking.  Travel hacking also requires a person to be structured and to know when to close a card before the annual fees will be charged.  There are many great travel websites and points tracking tools like awards wallet to make the process easier.

I hope you found this post useful.  Moving forward, I will share our experience with every new card we open and hack.  Please keep your eye out for round two in the next few months.

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Frugal Fun: Community Theater

I am going to share a secret with you.  When I am not reading financial blogs, kayak fishing, or following the The Philadelphia Eagles, there is a good chance that I might be watching a play.  My wife and I love the theater.  There is nothing like seeing a live performance on Broadway.  Over the years, we have seen some amazing shows.  Last spring, for my wife’s birthday, we saw Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce in Hello Dolly.  The previous spring, we saw Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams in Blackbird.  We have also seen WickedSpiderman: Turn Off the Dark, and The Humans that was written by the Scranton, Pa native Steven Karam.

My wife is a fan of musicals.  When we first started dating, she used to volunteer as an usher at The Scranton Cultural Center. As an usher, she was able to watch many of the top off-Broadway plays including Miss Saigon, Fiddler on the Roof, and Hair without ever buying a ticket. Over the years, she might have volunteered at 50 or more shows.

I am not as interested in musicals as my wife.  Straight plays are my favorite type of shows.  She enjoys show tunes and I like listening to dialogue.

I was introduced to the theater by an English Professor in college.  As an assignment for class, we had to attend a play and write an essay about it.  The play that we had to attend was a performance of Night of The Iguana by Tennessee Williams that was put on by other students who were part of the Drama Club.  That performance turned me on to the theater.

The cost to attend a Broadway show can be expensive.  We have attended matinees where we were able to buy tickets for less than $50.  We have also attended plays like Wicked where the tickets cost more than $250.

If you like theater, but do not want to spend big bucks on tickets, it is worth checking out your local theater company.  Going to see a play at a local theater is fun.  The small theaters provide a more intimate experience.  Plus, you can say you are a patron of the arts without having to be a multi-millionaire.  Tickets can be purchased for less than $25.

At a local theater company, you will most likely not have the grand theatrical sets that are on the stage of a Broadway performance. There will not be a full orchestra in the mezzanine.  Odds are, there will not even be a mezzanine.   You will also not see Tony Award-winning actors.  However, I was once at a performance of King Lear and the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Jason Miller showed up to give a special guest performance to lend support to that small theater.

Some local small theater ensembles have professional actors.  Some theaters are made up of amateur actors who perform because they love acting.  I have even gone to plays that were put on by high school students.

One of the most creative plays that I have ever been to was performed by a group of high school students.  For their senior project, this group of students turned three of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories into a play.  Their Literature Professor helped them to turn Hills Like White Elephant’sA Clean, Well-Lighted Place, and The End of Something into a three-act play.  The tickets to watch that show only cost $5 and it supported a good cause.

The most recent play that we attended was a performance of Into the Woods.  My wife wanted to go to this play because one of her friends from work was acting in this play.  The play was put on by Theatrical Gems.  The show was at The Performance Art Theater in Cresco, Pennsylvania.

Into the woods is a modern spin on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales.  This musical brings together the classic stories of Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella.  It was a fun play to watch since it was the weekend before Halloween.  It was a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  The tickets for this play were only $20.

Have you ever attended a show at your local community theater?

If you have, please share your experience in the comment section.

My Kayak: Frugal Fun on The Lake

They say that a boat owner has two happy days.  The first happy day is when they buy their new boat.  The second happy day is when they sell it.  That is based on the initial elation of having access to many bodies of water that are otherwise not available without a watercraft.  The costs tied to boat ownership, however, eventually erodes that elation over time.

I have nothing against boats.  My friend has a bass boat.  I have spent countless hours in his boat fishing at local lakes. My relatives also have a pontoon boat that they keep on a Lake in the Poconos.  The pontoon boat is great for parties on the water.

I was once planning on buying a boat.  I wanted a boat because I wanted to be able to take my wife out to the lake on our schedule.  I do not want to have to rely on anyone else’s availability.

When I first started looking at small boats, I stumbled upon kayaks.  I was intrigued.  They seem small enough to store in my garage, be transported on top of our Subaru Forster, and looked like they would be great fun on the water.

The more I read, the more interested I became in these small boats.  They provide exercise by paddling. They allow you to get into shallow spots where large boats cannot go.  They are also super stable and many models are designed for standing while casting.

As a member of the Financial Independence community, I do not rush into purchases.  I researched kayaks for a few years.  I finally decided to pull the trigger and made the purchase after renting a kayak when we were on vacation on a lake in Stowe, Vermont.

After much research and comparing prices, I purchased the Wilderness Systems Commander 120 Angler model.  It is a sit-on-top kayak that resembles a canoe.  It was purchased at an end of summer sale for $950 with free shipping.

This kayak is designed for fishing.  It has a ton of room for my tackle bag, a cooler, and comes with three-rod holders.  In the stern of the boat, there is also a large area for cargo.  The seat is adjustable and provides comfort for many hours while on the water.  It is also super stable.

Unlike a boat, I can take the kayak in hard to reach spots.  I can go in shallow water, swamps with overgrown vegetation, and over submerged trees that would have broken the prop off an outboard or trolling motor.  Those hard to reach spots tend to be nice hiding spots for big fish because they don’t see too much boat traffic.

I also purchased the Wilderness Systems Aspire 105 model for my wife.  Her Kayak is a sit-inside kayak that is designed for recreational use.  She uses her kayak to tour the lake and for relaxing on the water.  I purchased her kayak as a Christmas gift and paid $750 during a cyber Monday sale.

While the initial cost is not exactly cheap, it is much cheaper than if we decided to buy a boat.  First, we would have had to purchase a larger SUV or pick-up truck.  A used boat would have been at least a few thousand dollars more than we paid for the kayaks.  The boat would require an outboard or electric trolling motor to operate.  Plus, storage, trailer tags, maintenance, and boat registration fees.

After comparing the cost of the Kayak to a boat, the Kayak truly a great value.  Our total cost for the two kayaks, oars, PFDs, and a few accessories for fishing cost about $2500.  If I had to buy a truck and a boat, the cost would have been at least ten times the cost of getting started with a kayak.

Even though we had to spend some money to buy the kayaks, it was money well spent.  We use the kayaks during the spring, summer, and well into the fall.  We use them almost every weekend if it is not raining or we have a family event to attend.

As far as upkeep goes, it has been almost none existent.  We have had them for 4 seasons and the only part that had to be replaced was a handle on mine that cost $14.  Other than that, there is truly nothing else to break.

As I previously wrote, I have fished from a boat for years and will continue to do so when I go out with my friend.  I will also continue to enjoy the pontoon boat for family outings.  I won’t, however, have the expensive upkeep that comes along with boat ownership.  If you are frugal and thinking about how much fun a boat would be to own, consider looking at a kayak.  They are great fun at an affordable price.

Knoebels Amusement Resort

If you live in the Northeast and enjoy amusement parks, you should consider visiting Knoebels Amusement Resort.  My wife and I recently had the opportunity to visit this gem of a park located in Elysburg, Pennsylvania for a family outing.  Knoebels Amusement Resort is a wonderful park nestled in the Endless Mountains in Central, Pennsylvania.  Knoebels is located about 13 miles off Interstate-80.  It is about a 3-hour drive from New York City, a 2-hour drive from Philadelphia, a 4.5-hour drive from Washington D.C., and a 6-hour drive from Boston.

Most amusement parks are no longer a frugal option for families to enjoy.  The average cost for a general admission ticket to enter a popular theme park ranges from $80 to well over $100.  Some parks now require reservations to go on rides.  They charge to park, there are extra costs for shows, and the prices for refreshments are astronomically expensive.

Knoebels Amusement Resort is a throwback to the amusement parks of the past.  It is the largest free-admission park in America.  You can buy tickets for the rides that you want to go on or you can buy a pass that allows unlimited access to all the parks rides.  Parking is free.  All the many different shows and exhibits are also free.

Food

There is a picnic grove that is free to use if you decide to bring your own food.  The picnic grove has free electricity.  There are coin-operated gas stove tops to rent or you can bring your own grill.  Refrigeration is available if reserved.  Pets are allowed.  Coolers are allowed.  Alcohol is not allowed at the picnic grove because it is a family-friendly environment.

There are many different dining options.  The Alamo Restaurant offers entrees, sandwiches, and gluten-free options.  The Nickel Plate Bar & Grill serves alcoholic beverages as well as great burgers and hot wings.  There are also many different snack stands around the park if you want to grab something quick to eat while you are on the move.  There is a Nathans Hotdog Stand, Cesari’s Pizza, an ice cream shop, and even a Starbucks.

The cost of food sold at the park is reasonable as well as very tasty.  The New York-style pizza at Cesari’s was delicious.  A large cheese pizza only cost $17.

Rides

Knoebels opened in 1926.  It has been family owned for over 90 years.  Many of the rides at Knoebels have won awards.  Knoebels was voted by The Travel Channel as one of the Top-10 family-friendly parks in America.  Knoebels currently has a 4.5-star rating based on over 1,800 reviews on Tripadvisor.com.

There is no shortage of rides at Knoebels.  There are currently more than 60 rides.  New rides are added almost every year.

There are rides for every age group.  There is a carousel from 1913 that is fun for almost everyone.  There is a spooky, yet family-friendly Haunted Mansion Dark Ride that was featured on the Discovery Channel.  Knoebels is also famous for its two wooden roller coasters named the Twister and the Phoenix.  The Phoenix wooden roller coaster is consistently ranked by Amusement Today magazine as one of the best wooden roller coasters.  I found the Phoenix to be intense.

My wife and I are not hard-core when it comes to rides.  Our favorite ride is the Scenic Skyway.  The Scenic Skyway is a 14-minute ski-lift that climbs a mountain next to the park.  This ride is great if you are into seeing panoramic mountain views.  It is a nice ride to take some photographs.

Camping

Knoebels has a large campground with a few options.  The campground is ideal for visitors who want to stay and enjoy the park for more than one day.  There are campsites for tents as well as campers.  There are also rustic Cozy Log Cabins as well as the Eagles Roost Units that offer more amenities.   The campground is open from April 15th to November 1st.

Golf

If golf is your game, a quarter of a mile from the park is the Three Pond Golf Course.  The Three Pond Golf Course is an 18 hole, par-71 course, that is broken into two 9-hole courses.  There is a discount to play this course for those who are staying at Knoebels Campground.

Swimming

If you want a break from the great rides, go for a swim to cool down.  There is the gigantic Crystal Pool as well as a kiddie pool if you want to swim or relax poolside.  You can purchase a daily pass or even a pass for the whole season.  Group discounts are also available.

Shopping

If shopping is your passion, there are many different shops to browse around in.  There is the General Store that specializes in old fashion country charm.  The park has a variety of different apparel shops that specialize in Knoebel’s hats, shirts, and other souvenirs. There are even different media stores to have custom photos and videos made for your visit.

Attractions

Knoebels has other fun attractions.

Have you ever seen a Bald Eagle?  There are currently two at the Bald Eagle Preserve.  There are daily educational sessions at 2 pm.

Knoebels also has a few museums.  There is a Carousel Museum with 50 carousel figures that date back to 1870.  The mining museum has tools and artifacts from Pennsylvania’s rich mining history.  There is even a Knoebels Museum that provides a detailed history of the park.

If you are looking for a cool place to hang out, enjoy a round miniature golf under the shaded pine trees.

There are also many arcades, a Laser Command game with a full obstacle course, multiple theaters, and other fun activities.

Conclusion

There is truly something for everyone at Knoebels Amusement Resort.  We had a great day.  The rides were fun and reasonable.  The food was tasty and affordable.  The park was not overly crowded like many of the big theme parks.  It is simply a nice park that provides affordable family fun.  In our group, everyone from the kids, to the parents, to the seniors had a great time at the park.

Have you ever been to Knoebels Amusement Resort?  If you have, please share your experience in the comment section.