What? 32 flights, 13 countries, 5 continents, 3 car rentals for $1k?

jetpack

I have been into finding cheap flights for years. Last year I got into racking up points for (virtually) free travels. I am happy to report that I have outdone myself: USA (California, Nevada, Utah), Iceland, UK, Morocco, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Poland, France, Brazil (twice + business class), Argentina, Cuba, Hawaii, and Mexico. All of that for merely $1k spent on flights and car rentals. Here’s how.

Below I list some of my travels (or bookings) done within the last year. They exemplify that traveling may indeed be very cheap. I hope you’ll find it instructional and encouraging. Each trip is followed by the number of flights booked, (optional) car rentals, the amount of redeemed points, and cash spent during redeeming the rewards or on flight bookings. Well, the rewards are almost free, as you still have to pay some taxes.

moro

At the end of the post, I explain how I collected all the points and I estimate their face value. I hope you’ll find it convincing and the post will encourage you to try out travel rewards. My previous blog post describes how I got into collecting the points.

September 2015: Labor Day Weekend in Northern California, USA  (2 flights, 1 car, 40k points + $11.20)
Itinerary
Exploring San Francisco, wine tasting in Napa Valley, driving along the Pacific Highway, and visiting Yellowstone National Park.
Flights
Boston -> San Francisco (12.5k points + $5.60)
San Francisco -> Boston (12.5k points + $5.60)
Car rental

Ford Mustang (15k points + $20)

yosem

November 2015: Thanksgiving in Brazil and Argentina (6 flights, 102.5k points + $77.40)
Itinerary
Meeting friends and partying in Sao Paulo, visiting the wonderful waterfalls Foz do Iguacu (Brazilian and Argentinian sides), stopping by Brasilia to check out the unique architecture, partying in Natal during Carnatal.
Flights
Boston -> Sao Paulo (30k points + $5.60)
Sao Paulo -> Foz do Iquacu (10k points + $5.60)
Foz do Iguacu -> Brasilia (10k points + $5.60)
Brasilia -> Natal (10k points + $5.60)
Natal -> Sao Paulo (12.5k points + $5.60)
Sao Paulo -> Boston (30k points + $49.40)

natal

April 2016: Long weekend in California and Nevada, USA (2 flights, 12.5k points + $5.60)
Itinerary

Visiting national parks (Death Valley, Sequoia Park, Yosemite), and checking out few cities (Las Vegas, Fresno, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Hollywood). I scored a totally free one-way flight from Los Angeles to Boston. How? I purchased the flight using gift cards that got reimbursed through Amex Airline Fee Credit program.
Flights
Boston -> Los Angeles (12.5k points + $5.60)
Los Angeles -> Boston (0 points + $0.00)

pacific

May 2016: Euro-Afro-Asia-trip in Iceland, UK, Morocco, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Poland, France (9 flights, 0 points + $470)
Itinerary

Blue lagoon in Iceland, unique culture and architecture of Morocco, amazing mountains in Italy and Switzerland, culture, nature, and history of Israel, friends and family in Poland, a glass of wine in Paris. I was especially impressed by Switzerland and Israel. Interestingly, I didn’t use any points during this trip. The flights were simply too cheap to waste the points.
Flights
Boston -> Reykjavik -> Bristol (0 points + $220)
Bristol -> Marrakesh (0 points + $30)
Marrakesh -> Milan (0 points + $20)
Milan -> Tel Aviv (0 points + $30)
Tel Aviv -> Warsaw (0 points + $30)
Warsaw -> Paris (0 points + $20)
Paris -> Reykjavik -> Boston (0 points + $120)

ch

September 2016: Labor Day in Nevada and Utah, USA (2 flights, 2 cars, 56.5k points + $71.20)
Itinerary

Attending Corvette owner’s driving school, visiting national parks (Zion, Arches), and canyons in Utah. Utah is truly a beautiful state and is a pleasure to drive in.
Flights
Boston -> Las Vegas (17.5k points + $5.60)
Las Vegas -> Boston (12.5 points + $5.60)
Car rentals
Ford Mustang GT (16k points + $40)
Mazda 3 (10.5k points +  $20)

ronfellows

October 2016: Long Weekend in Tijuana, Mexico (2 flights, 0 points + $0.00)
Itinerary

Flying to Los Angeles to pick up a rental car and going to Tijuana for tacos and tequilas. Gift cards reimbursed by Amex cover the cost of the flights.
Flights
Boston -> Los Angeles (0 points + $140)
Los Angeles -> Boston (0 points + $120)

tijuana

November 2016: Long Weekend in Brazil (3 flights, 95k points + $78.12)
Itinerary
Caldas Novas Country Show in the jungle! First time in my life I’ll be flying business class redeemed as an award ticket. Straight from the jungle to Boston.
Flights
Boston -> Sao Paulo (30k points + $5.60)
Sao Paulo -> Brasilia (10k points + $5.60)
Goiania -> Boston (55k points + $66.92)

goiania

November 2016: Thanksgiving in Cuba (2 flights, 0 points + $315)
Itinerary
Getting a classic beater from the 50’s, salsa classes, cigars, and mojitos. The price of the flight is so good that it’s not worth using the points.
Flights
Montreal -> Varadero (0 points + $170)
Varadero -> Montreal (0 points + $145)

kuba

February 2017: Winter in Hawaii (4 flights, 60k points + $22.4)
Itinerary

Visiting Oahu, Hawaii, and Kauai. Not sure what island is best for what, but gotta meet up with Kahunas, do some diving, and find coconuts.
Flights
Boston -> Honolulu (22.5k points + $5.60)
Honolulu -> Kona (7.5k points + $5.60)
Kona -> Lihue (7.5k points + $5.60)
Lihue -> Boston (22.5k points + $5.60)

hawaii

Total: 32 flights, 13 countries, 5 continents, 3 cars (366.5k points + $1071.92)
An obvious question you may have: how did he collect so many points? Well, I signed up for 4 credit cards. Through signup bonuses, regular card use, and extra bonuses I collected 250k points within one year. The other points came from flights (a good number of them happened before a year ago). What’s the face value of all these points? Probably somewhere around $4k. That’s how much you can easily get towards your travels if you play your cards right. Who doesn’t like free stuff?

You’re welcome!

Designing a Great Road-Trip

redrock

I enjoy road-trips more than any other kind of travels. Exploring the world by car offers a lot of freedom and flexibility. It is time-efficient and relatively cheap; especially if you can split the cost among few people. Having traveled by car on four continents, here is what I do to design a great road-trip.

grandcanyon

Great destinations. Before going on a road-trip I search for major destinations that would excite me. Typically, these are national parks, beautiful sceneries, cities, or scientific sites. I look them up on Wikitravel. Other times, however, the road is my ultimate destination. For example, I enjoy driving on scenic roads in the mountains.

alps

Cool detours. Besides visiting major destinations, I like doing detours to check out attractions that are more or less on the way. Some examples? Coal mines, waterfalls, factories, distilleries, bridges. Roadtrippers is a good website to look for inspirations.

gorgebridge

Scenic roads and enjoyable cars. I do care about driving. I find driving more enjoyable on a twisty road than on a straight highway. Whenever possible, I try to pick a route that maximizes the fun factor of driving, i.e., it features many curves, change of elevation, and beautiful views. Analogically, picking a fun car vs a dull one makes a huge difference. Especially on a long trip. If weather permits, convertible is my choice (and lots of sunscreen :-) ).

transfagarasan

Amount of driving. It totally depends on the group of people you are going with. If I am on my own, or with people who road-tripped with me in the past, we do a lot of driving. 10-15 hours a day is not uncommon. Of course, driving that much is very exhausting. We try to switch drivers every few hours. Recently, however, I figured out my optimal driving schedule: 1) start 9am, 2) do 8h of the actual driving, and 3) finish by 9pm. On one hand, it is enough to enjoy driving. On the other hand, I am not too tired and can still party.

jetvet

Stops. Each stop is very time-costly. I try to minimize the number of stops. Typically, I stop every 2-3 hours to take a short brake, get some food, and maybe refuel. Short stops make the actual travel time more predictable. For example, if I am on the highway, I travel 100km/h on average (including stops and slow-downs). So, if I am going to a place that is 400km away, it takes me about 4 hours.

deadsea

Accommodation. I almost never book accommodation in advance when doing a road-trip. Why? I simply do not know how far I will drive. Most of the time, I would book a hotel/motel/hostel on booking.com or Hostelworld 30-60 minutes before the planned arrival. I always check that the place has a free parking and 24h reception.

mohawk

Food. When traveling solo, I eat burgers and snacks (some favorites include beef jerky, cheese, and chocolate bars). Eating these is very time efficient. If we have more people on board, we search for places with decent food.

66diner

The right people. Spending multiple hours in the same car with the wrong people is a huge bummer. It is best to travel with people who: 1) enjoy driving, 2) do not mind long driving days, 3) are flexible about the schedule, and 4) are, generally, happy and talkative. I, however, absolutely do not mind traveling on my own. It gives me the most flexibility and the road keeps me occupied.

fixingmustang

Technology. Waze is my favorite app for navigation. Real time information about road hazards, the police, and speed traps is invaluable. If we travel in multiple cars, a set of walkie talkies is very handy. It helps with navigation and makes the trip more fun!

Attaining Financial Goals

coins

I am no financial advisor, but, I believe, I do quite a few things right when it comes to finances. I have had few major financial goals in my life: education, travels, and cars. I managed to attain all of them successfully. In this post, I share some of the ideas that shape my approach to finances.

Teaching Myself about Finances
I had never been into business- and economics-related education. Somehow, I was able to plow through advanced mathematics, quantum physics, and computer science research, but studying economics was incompatible with my brain. One day, however, I discovered Macroeconomics lectures by Krassimir Petrov. Finally, something that I enjoyed studying. The lectures got me interested in economics and embedded the idea of financial responsibility very deeply in my heart. Since then, I have been reading (mostly non-mainstream) financial articles and news every day. I consider it time very well spent.

Life Choices
I have never believed in get-rich-quick schemes. Solid, steady growth and wise long-term planning is what I admire. Let me give you some examples of my life choices here.

  1. In 2009 I received grad school offers from four world-class universities. In the end, I was debating between University of Waterloo (Canada) and Cambridge University (UK). All things being equal (quality- and research-wise), I finally decided on Waterloo. The latter also offered a way better financial support. As a grad student, I lived a very moderate lifestyle and I was able to travel the world. I also finished the school debt-free and full of ideas.
  2. As I was about to graduate, I was doing a lot of research as to where I would like to live and work. I created a spreadsheet that compared various countries in terms of the weather, social life, safety, travel, work, and financial opportunities, etc. Besides the opportunities, the US offered unparalleled disposable income among the contenders. Although there are places that are a way more fun than the US, I still think it was a very reasonable decision to start my career here.

Priorities: Frugal on Things, Rich on Experiences.
I have a very simple test that determines what I spend my resources on. I strive to limit my spendings on things that do not make me happy. I mostly pay for the experience, not for the thing per se. For example, my room is almost empty. I asked myself the questions. Would buying a piece of furniture make me any more happy? The answer was negative. Would traveling make me more happy? The answer was positive. This is how I channel my resources.

yosemite

Saving
I found one method particularly effective when it comes to saving. First, I set up a goal to keep myself focused. I make it so important that whenever I am to pay for something, the goal is in the back on my mind. Then, I create a spreadsheet that lists pay days for the next few months. For each pay day, I specify the exact figures for gross income, disposable income, planned expenses, (realistic!) planned savings, and emergency funds. On the next pay day I compare the planned savings with the actual savings. It keeps me on track. I found the spreadsheet very effective as I know how well I am performing and how far I am from reaching the goal.

Investing
I have had small successes in investing in stocks, but I consider it mostly by luck. Investing does take a lot of effort and requires a good understanding of the overall economy and businesses. For me it makes most sense as a long-term vehicle. I found Robinhood a useful platform for commission-free investing on the stock market. Other than that, I regularly invest in mutual funds to secure my retirement.

aapl

Going Debt-Free (Unless It Is Profitable)
I feel uneasy about debts that one cannot afford. I use credit/charge cards a lot, but always pay them off in full before the deadline. Additionally, I use cards to collect points that I can then use for cheap traveling. Sometimes, however, it is OK to take a long-term loan, e.g., to partially finance a car. Let’s say the loan has the APR of 1.5%, but the stock market offers 5% returns per year. It simply is a good deal: I can buy the car (and enjoy it while I’m still young and healthy) while simultaneously investing the money and profiting from the loan.

frozencamaro

Conclusion
I hope that you will find some of these ideas useful. Again, I’m no financial advisor. I know people who fare much better than myself. I’m just a regular guy who knows his priorities and, probably, manages his finances a little bit better than the average.

Sports Car Ownership Is Quite an Experience!

z51

Sports car ownership entails experiencing a wide range of intense emotions. Excitement, intoxication, happiness, appreciation, freedom. It is nothing like driving a regular car. Floor the gas pedal and feel the butterflies in the stomach. It is more like having a personal rollercoaster. In this blog post I share my fresh experience of daily driving a torch red Corvette Stingray Z51. 10 000km (6000mi) in 6 weeks. Whereas some remarks are vette-specific, most easily generalize to any performance-oriented car.

570s

Attention and Appreciation
Majority of sports cars look flashy, cartoonish, and stand out for their Skittles-like colors. They are perceived as special, as they are rare compared to other types of vehicles. How does that translate to the real world? Take the car for a spin around town and you will see people smiling at you, taking pictures, giving thumbs up, and following the car with their eyes. Kids will be yelling WOW! Stop the car and within minutes people will be taking selfies and complimenting on the vehicle. It does feel nice, indeed. It is probably the closest I will ever get to experiencing a celebrity’s lifestyle haha

fordgt

Design
The specific design of sports cars is dictated by performance requirements, the wow factor, and certain standards of beauty. Sports vehicles are not meant to be overly practical; they are meant to be treated as a piece of art. Sometimes I feel like I could stare at the vette and appreciate its beautiful proportions, styling elements, and all the engineering that makes this beauty functional. Although beauty goes beyond daily driving, it is impossible to ignore when the car is parked. Take a look at a lambo; it takes the design to extremes.

aventador

Acceleration: Being in the Now
People buy sports cars not because they need them. Rather, because they want to enjoy the ownership, the driving experience, great handling, and the rapid acceleration. The latter makes for an intoxicating experience. It simply puts you in the now. Upon hard acceleration there is no time for thinking about anything else. The amount of information that your senses perceive is staggering. Vision becomes blurry, all you can hear is engine cacophony, and all you feel is the hit in the back as if someone kicked you. I concur, every rapid acceleration puts a huge smile on my face.

Girls
This is a multi-dimensional topic. In case you were wondering. 1) Do guys rev up their engines to impress girls? I highly doubt that. I could not care less about a random girl when, upon a hard acceleration, the seat hits my head. Gotta focus on the road. The loud noise of a revved up engine is just a byproduct. 2) Is it easier to get girls? A cool car does help, as the attention and some presumptions are already in place. As with other people, many girls would smile and some wave. Have I taken advantage of that? No. No time for that. Driving feels a way more unique and rewarding. At least for now :-) 3) Are girls interested in cool cars? Most care more about their shoes and stuff. Those who do like cars, though, make for awesome road-trip companions!

Comradeship
Whenever I see another vette owner, we wave to each other and smile. On a regular basis, I get a hand wave and thumbs up from other sports car owners and car enthusiasts; or we quickly rev up the engines. It is cool. These are the people that I (will) meet at car events, internet forums, or, hopefully, when I need help.

Life-Changing
Apart from posers, sports cars tend to attract car enthusiasts. These people attend car shows and meetups, go on road-trips, cruises, and rallies, and spend time in each others company. Getting into that community opened up a whole new world for me. It connected me with some very cool and valuable people that I would have never met otherwise. I also learned about events that I never knew existed.

Conclusion
Ownership of a sports car is a lot of fun. It is more about the experience than anything else. It already turned my life upside down. Although you may have some preconceived notions, I highly recommend experiencing a sports car first hand. Who knows, maybe you will get hooked on and it will change your life as well? I know that for me it is just the beginning. I am looking forward to countless smiles per gallon.

My Year in America 2.0

wall

Welcome to my second post dedicated to young professionals looking for their place in the world. I blogged about my first year in America in October 2014. It got many views and very positive feedback. Here, I am summarizing my second year on the other side of the pond: the good, the bad, and the exciting. Let’s go!

October 2014

FREE PHONE FROM GOOGLE
I appreciate how customers are valued in America. Here is my story. Once I dropped my Google phone. Not on purpose. The screen cracked. I contacted Google to ask about the warranty. Guess what? They said to simply send the broken phone back; they are sending me a new one. For free. Immediately. How cool is that?

papaphone

CHEAPER FLIGHTS TO EUROPE
All of October I was in constant travel mood; booking flights and boarding spaceships. My mood was further enhanced by the introduction of regular sub-$500 return flights between Europe and America. I secured a $390 deal to Denmark in June. Bday in Europe? Let’s celebrate!

November

POCAHONTAS IN THE JUNGLE
Americans celebrate Turkey Day in November. I celebrate Turkey Day in Brazil. As always, Brazil was a cool adventure. First, we met with my friends around Sao Paulo to practice samba. Next was Curitiba; I was offered a modeling job there. Afterward, a 4-day carnival party in Florianopolis. The final mission was to find a Pocahontas in the jungle. In America, Tinder would do. In Brazil, I ate larvas, practiced swinging on lianas, and even learned Portuguese phrases. Tinder was inaccessible in the jungle, though. Bummer.

tarzan

December

HUSTLING
Engineers use Simulink to design cars, spaceships, and other complex devices. I was developing Simulink dependency viewer: software that shows dependencies among systems; it helps engineers to understand the structure of Simulink models. I learned a lot and iterated quickly. It was very rewarding to work on software that engineers need. I find traveling cool, but writing useful programs is as enjoyable!

depview

GOING DEEP IN CAYMAN ISLANDS
That was the best planned Christmas in my life. Months in advance I signed up for an online diving course. I passed the written exam with flying colors. End of December I dove in warm Caribbean waters to get diver’s certificate. Not only got I the certificate, I also got sunburned, saw the actual Batmobile, petted friendly stingrays, and flew a helicopter. If someone tells you that unplanned trips are the best, don’t believe them :-)

stingrayme

January

NEVER DRIVE IN VIRGINIA
New Year’s eve in New York City was a decent idea. As we woke up January 1, we drove to Tennessee to get cowboy hats. I was stopped by a cop in Virginia. He said I was going too fast and charged me with reckless driving. Virginia treats fast driving as a crime (high fines, license suspension, and jail time are an option). Ridiculous! I was summoned to the court. I prepared well, however; got a lawyer, calibrated the speedometer, and provided my clean driving record. The judge reduced the charges to regular speeding. Total cost? $1500. Driving in Virginia was the worst thing that has happened to me in America. Uncool.

BUILDING PYRAMIDS IN MEXICO
January was cold in Boston. I headed to Cancun to get some tan. That’s what Americans do. We met there with Peter, got a jeep, and loaded red Don Julio gasolina. We were ready to build pyramids. Apart from being a party place, Cancun offers coconuts, cool jungles, unique cenotes, and decent burritos. Recommended!

February

2 WEEKS, 5 CARNIVALS, WINTER OF THE CENTURY
The hottest place on Earth in February? Brazil. No contest. Pre-pre-carnival street parties in Campinas, pre-carnival in Fortaleza on the fantastic north-east shore, crazy carnival in Salvador, less-crazy carnival in Praia do Rosa in the south, and very fun after-carnival in São Paulo. That was my February. Here is the best part: all of that was happening during winter of the century in Boston. Ah, and Brazilians are the friendliest!

March

SEAN PAUL PARTY AND SPACESHIPS
Canadian friends showed up in Boston again. We went to New York again. Party weekend again. Everything has been done before. Kkinda. Friday night we went to a Jamaican party with Sean Paul. Saturday we were building statues of liberty, manhattans, and other crap. 3am we drove to DC to visit Barack, NSA, and the actual spaceships. I was impressed by the size of the shuttle Discovery. Bigger than Donald Trump’s ego.

BACK IN TIME
Don’t remember how, but I found online this picture from the daycare. It was taken probably around 1991. I was 5 then. No idea what kind of party it was, but looks wild. Where is Kacper in the picture? :-)

daycare

April

WATERING CACTUSES IN VEGAS
I’m not gonna lie. I had been longing for this Arizona and Nevada trip. Phoenix greeted us with Don Julio gasolina, burritos, and loud parties. We rented a Mustang convertible to get some tan, and to explore deserts, canyons, rocks, and dams. We made sure to water each and every cactus on the way to Las Vegas. Vegas is a funny, kitschy, and unreal place. It’s a bubble in the middle of the desert. A bubble that I enjoy very much.

canyon1F1 RACE TRACK IN MONTREAL
Last weekend of April we did a quick road-trip to Montreal. It is one of my favorite cities in North America. It’s got european feel, friendly people, good looking girls, lots of fun events, very decent nightlife, and quality food. All the good qualities that Toronto lacks. We ended up on the F1 race track to test drive the camaro engine.

May

ROUTE 66
We flew down to Dallas to eat steaks, and to transport watermelons to Albuquerque in New Mexico; 1000km away. In Dallas only pickup trucks are allowed, and that’s what we got. On our way, we were towing vintage trucks thru the legendary route 66. We ate texmex whenever possible. We also installed the longest tramway in the world on Sandia Peak, and inspected nuclear bombs at Los Alamos Laboratory.

towing

GOING BACK TO THE FUTURE IN CANADA
I am always happy to visit my alma mater and my former lab in Waterloo. It is a wonderful lab and they do very cool things there; including car- and airplane-related software. I also got a chance to meet up with old friends, make some new ones, and party every day. Waterloo got cooler. Fo sho.

beta

June

EURASIAN INVASIAN
Finally, I made it to Europe to celebrate my birthday at the Distortion festival in Copenhagen. I barely woke up the next day, and I already had to fly to Poland to say hi to parents. Poland is a fun place with friendly folks and superior nightlife. Next stop was in Greece. In Greece the girls are sweet. We did a cool road-trip and almost made it to Albania. That country, however, was closed after 10pm. I then teleported to Budapest to eat some Gulasz. Afterward, I flew to Dubai to drive camels, do 4×4 off-roading on the desert, and to build Burj Khalifa. I got a bit sweaty, so went to Bulgaria to cool down and to experience Eastern Europe.

camel

I headed to Romania to visit Dracula, Borat, and to explore Transylvania. The landscapes were stunning. I drove on some of the most enjoyable roads: Transfagarasan and Transalpina. I then briefly stopped in Dublin to cook kinder surprise eggs with Magdalenka. Finally, I went back to the future in Copenhagen to recelebrate my birthday. The whole trip was a great success. Why? Due to a combination of old friends, cool parties, new friends, road-trips, new experiences, the nature, and a variety of cultures. Fun-wise, Europa >> America.

euro

GRINGO CARD
I was away for most of June; similarly to February and November. You may think that I have no time for work. It’s not completely true :-) In fact, when I don’t travel, I am very productive at work. I like the company, and, apparently, the company likes me. After 1.5 years of employment, they offered to sponsor my green card so I can stay in the US indefinitely. I celebrated this offer by getting a very american tank on July 4. Thank you.

murica

July

FRYING EGGS IN DEATH VALLEY
We were meeting up with Canadian nurses in Los Angeles on July 4 to celebrate the Independence day. Their idea was to learn surfing. My idea was to go to Death Valley to fry eggs on our jeep’s hood. It was hell. At 5pm the temperature was still around 50C. Later, we made it to Las Vegas and went to Zedd’s show. XS was the most overwhelming and coolest club I have been to. People were dressed up. I was wearing a fake suit-with-tie t-shirt. Everyone genuinely thought it was the coolest shit they have seen in their lives.

TRAVELING LESS
Happiness and fast cars is pretty much the same thing. I always find acceleration and speed thrilling. No more traveling for me for the coming year. Instead, I want to channel my energy into getting a faster car. I need a practical daily driver. I’m considering either Porsche Cayman S or Corvette C7. I am leaning toward the latter for its better performance, more exotic styling, brutal V8 engine, and this obnoxious exhaust. Your pick?

cars1

August

PRETTY FLY
I had never bothered with airmiles and credit card welcome offers. Till June. Since then, I have done a lot of research and wised up. My results? 3 months later I ended up with 100,000 free airmiles from credit card welcome offers, 50,000 from airlines, and 10,000 from shopping. That amounts to a free return flight to Brazil, two flights within Brazil, 2-day Mustang convertible rental in San Francisco, and my future flight to Australia. Where do you get deals like that? Only in America.

cards

MOOCs
I cannot live without expanding my education and knowledge. I always feel the urge to learn something new and to grow. I gave massive open online courses a shot on Coursera. I signed up for their prominent Machine Learning course. The course itself is very well done. I find the idea of MOOCs absolutely fantastic. Great free online courses are offered by top universities. Revolution in education is happening now. Check it out!

ml

September

GOLD RUSH
Americans celebrate hard work on Labor day long weekend in September. I went to San Francisco to work hard, to look for gold, and to make wine. At the airport, I picked up my free (airmiles) Mustang convertible. I did a road-trip from San Francisco, through the Pacific Highway, Yellowstone, mountainous roads, and Napa Valley. California has some of the most exciting roads out there. There is nothing quite as liberating as driving a fast convertible on scenic roads on a sunny day while blasting energizing music. Freedom!

STARGAZING IN ACADIA
Together with my colleagues we went to Acadia National Park to watch stars and search for black holes. Guess what, on our way there, we got a speeding ticket. It wasn’t me this time.

acadia

October 2015

TO UNDERSTAND THE FUTURE, WE HAVE TO GO BACK IN TIME
I didn’t know much about West Virginia. It’s a state with mountains and jungles. We went there to look for aliens using the biggest radio telescope, to measure the New River Gorge Bridge, to make flour in state park mills, and to enjoy driving on curvy mountainous roads. West Virginia is a very different kind of America.

disclaimer for all the confused: in the picture above, it’s a jacket with decorations, not uniform

Conclusion
That’s all folks! Within my second year I got a chance to visit many remarkable places and cities in the US. It is a huge and beautiful country, indeed. Living on the other side of the pond may be an enjoyable experience. If you follow the rules, that is. I still think that America offers unparalleled opportunities and decent qualify of life. Do I miss Europe? Some things for sure. Would I miss America if I ever moved back to Europe? Some things for sure!

Exploring and Enjoying America

monument

I spent the last few years traveling around North America quite extensively. I quickly noticed that the travel style and the interesting sites are significantly different than those in Europe. Europe is full of various cultures, languages, historical sites, unique cities, and events. Although USA and Canada are much more homogenous, not all is lost! Here are the key differences and suggestions on how to make the most of visiting the other side of the pond.

Distance

Distances in America are, generally, vast. Let’s say you have 4h and a car. In Europe, you easily find several big cities that are within the 4h distance. In America you’re quite lucky if you can find one. Similarly, cities in Europe are walkable and accessible by public transit. In America, walking is hardly an option. Public transit is good in few cities.

Advice: America is meant to be explored on wheels! Initially, I didn’t quite like that idea, but now I’m all for road-trips and the freedom that the car offers. Some of the roads are very scenic and absolutely pleasant to drive on. Whereas Europe offers many cool attractions in the cities, in America you’ll find cool attractions on the way.

goldengate

Cities

European cities offer historical old towns, casual traditional performances, beauty and ugliness, and a variety of architectural styles. Most of American cities, on the other hand, are very consistent, compartmentalized, and self-similar; predictable; there is downtown, high-rise financial district, some nightlife area, cultural districts, and humongous suburbs where families live in cardboard houses. Having seen few of these cities, you can easily imagine how the next city will look like. Whereas some cities deserve the time to visit and appreciate them (e.g., New York City, San Francisco, Montreal, Las Vegas, Boston), most can be explored within a day. On the positive note, American cities compensate for the lack of historical landmarks by offering fantastic museums.

Advice: my suggestion is to shift focus from exploring cities to performing activities, doing road-trips, and appreciating the natural beauty of national parks. If you enjoy museums, you won’t be disappointed either.

vegas

People and Social Life

If you traveled around Europe, you know you can easily meet people there, hang out with total strangers, and form long-lasting friendships. I believe that the small distance, high population density, and limited work obsession are the key reasons here. Furthermore, dense, green, and interesting cities encourage to spend time in them.

In America things look very different. Typically, people work a lot, live in the spread out suburbs, and mind their own business. Whereas it’s very easy and common to chit-chat with the strangers, it’s just a form of pleasantry. The other person will be gone as soon as the chit-chat ends. Also, although some cities offer urban parks, forget about chilling on the grass with a bottle of wine. The law here perceives public consumption of alcohol as one of the greatest evils (there are some exceptions, e.g., Las Vegas).

Advice: before visiting an American city, make sure you know someone in that city! It is best if you can know someone directly or through a common friend. Other options include Couchsurfing and national/cultural clubs. I wouldn’t count on hostels. Unlike in Europe, American hostels are not great in terms of the social aspect (or any other aspect, really). When Americans travel, they prefer to stay in hotels or through Airbnb.

redneck

Parties

If you are into parties and nightlife, here is the thing. In much of Europe you can party all night long and be spontaneous about it. Parties are plentiful and finish organically, i.e., when people are tired or go to another party. In America people prefer to stick to the schedule and go home early (or go to frat parties if they are in college). Typically, they show up at the club around 11pm, party for 3 hours and go home 2-3am. Even if they wanted to stay up longer, they cannot, because clubs close very early. Short nightlife can keep Americans productive the next day :-)

Advice: if you find parties important, you can either go to well-organized festivals (e.g., the Burning man, Ultra festival, Tomorrowland), or visit cities that understand the importance of nightlife, e.g., Miami, New York City, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Montreal.

burningman

Entertainment And Activities

As the cities are not so captivating, and the nightlife is short, America offers lots of entertainment options. People here absolutely love sports. You can find some sport games any time of the year. Take your pick: basketball, american football, baseball, hockey, or even soccer. There is also a multitude of entertainment parks (e.g., Disney, Logoland, Universal studios), and some of the worlds best theme parks. Furthermore, cool activities are easy to find and are plentiful, e.g., within one day you can go skydiving, rafting, race a Ferrari, shoot a serious gun, fly a helicopter… pretty much anything you can imagine. It’s just a matter of how much $$$ you are willing to spend.

Advice: if you are into that kind of stuff, you will absolutely love visiting North America! Also, as liability is a very important concept here, the attractions are very safe and well maintained.

coaster

Nature and Man-made attractions

And here is the best one: the nature, outdoorsy activities, and man-made attractions. America offers fascinating sites created by the nature, e.g., the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Salt Flats. The national parks, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, are second to none. Similarly, man-made attractions, such as the Hoover Dam and Mount Rushmore are also world-renowned.

Advice: get a car, set off for a road-trip, and appreciate these stunning spots all over the continent!

canyon

$67 gets me: 3 Brazilian flights, 2-day Mustang Convertible rental, 1 US flight. $1,690 value. Beat that!

aadv

When you guys were partying last night, I just made a deal of my life haha. Here is my shopping list: 1) a return flight Boston – Sao Paulo during the carnival; 2) a domestic one-way flight in Brazil from Natal to Sao Paulo; 3) 2-day Mustang Convertible rental in San Francisco on Labor day weekend; and 4) one domestic one-way flight from Boston to New York in October. So, four flights and one cool car rental for the total of $66.60. Face value: $1,690. Here’s how.

Short Story Long

One evening I was talking to my roommate about my $300 return flight deal from Boston to San Francisco on Labor day weekend (Sep 4-7, you in?). Somewhere in the discussion he mentioned airmiles. My thought was: airmiles? Yes, I signed up for all these frequent flyer programs but never bothered checking them. I’m disloyal to brands, so I always thought that my airmiles are gone. I decided to check out my frequent flyer accounts.

It turned out that I had over 55,000 miles in total. Apart from that, I just received an offer from American Express to sign up for their Premier Rewards Gold Card. The card covers  incidental airline fees up to $100 per year and they offered me a sign up bonus of 50,000 points. Cool! I started doing my research. It took me a while to figure out how to spend the points most effectively. Are you ready?

amex

1. Boston -> Sao Paulo in February

First, I booked a one-way flight with United from Boston to Sao Paulo for the carnival. It required 30,000 airmiles + $5.6 fees.

2. Sao Paulo -> Boston in February

I figured out that I can transfer amex points to Delta frequent flyer program (1,000 amex points = 1,000 Delta points). The flight from Sao Paulo to Boston on President’s day costs 30,000 airmiles + $49.40 fees.

If I was to book a regular return flight from Boston to Sao Paulo during the carnival, it would be at least $1,000. I know because I booked in the past :-)

carnivalbiz

3. 2-day Mustang Convertible Rental through American Airlines

Many airlines allow you to use the airmiles to book hotels and cars, as well. As I’m doing a road-trip around northern California on Labor day weekend, I will need a car. I checked out what American Airlines can offer for me. Having done a quick search, I realized that they share rewards with National car rental, which, in turn, shares their car fleet with Enterprise. I was able to find a Mustang Convertible for 24,400 airmiles. Unfortunately, I had only 15,600 airmiles with American Airlines. They asked me to pay $35.20 to cover the missing airmiles to rent the car. I went ahead and paid using the amex card. The transaction showed up as an American Airlines transaction. Now, the cool thing is that I set up the amex card to cover American Airlines incidentals! Effectively, I’m paying $0 for the rental, which is otherwise worth $320.

mustangconv

4. Natal -> Sao Paulo in December

Earlier this year, I booked a flight to Brazil for $500 around the Thanksgiving weekend (Nov 27-Dec 6). Fantastic deal. As I was looking for cool stuff to do, I found out that they’ve got this crazy out-of-season carnival party in Natal, called Carnatal. The party is happening Dec 3-6. My flight back from Sao Paulo to Boston is on Dec 6 late at night. I wanted to fly from Natal to Sao Paulo in the afternoon. Currently, the prices are crazy: $300 for a one way flight. Booking the same flight through Delta, however, (which shares flights with Gol) gives me the same flight for 12,500 points + $6 fees. Done!

carnatal

5. Boston -> New York in October

I wanted to see how far I can get for the 7,500 left from the amex signup bonus. I found a one-way flight from Boston to New York on a Friday. Additional fees are $5.6. Regular price is $70. Not an amazing deal, but why not?

Total cost: 95,600 airmiles + $66.60. Total value: $1,690

Beat me! As if that wasn’t enough, I was able to book a Corvette Stingray in San Francisco at Avis with a 20% discount using pre-pay and the amex card. So, during the labor day weekend, I’m getting a Mustang Convertible and a Corvette for less than the cost of the Mustang. How cool is that?

vet

How Does This Shit Work?

You may be wondering: how does this shit work? How are they making money by giving airmiles and rewards? Loyalty is one factor. Another factor is that amex can give great rewards, because it charges merchants twice as much as Visa/MasterCard. Merchants don’t like amex, but the clients do. If you think about it, you will get to the conclusion that Visa/MasterCard and cash payers, subsidize my rewards!

cards

Let’s say you are a merchant and you sell a product for $100. If I pay cash, the merchant keeps $100 for himself. If I pay Visa/MasterCard, the merchant keeps $98 for himself, and pays $2 to Visa/MasterCard. If I pay amex card, the merchant keeps $96 for himself, and pays $4 to American Express. Of course, as a client, we all pay the same amount, so the merchant has to set the price so that he makes certain profit on average. He adjusts the price so that he makes a profit, and a card company makes a profit. Consequently, amex users pay as much as others, but get superb rewards. Cool, eh?

Car Rental Tips for Road-trips

arizona

Road-tripping has become my new favorite sport. Especially in America. Exploring the world on wheels offers a lot of freedom and mobility. If we cannot take my car, we end up flying to a distant city and rent a car there. Although renting the car is a simple process, I learned several things that may help to reduce the cost of the rental, and make the road-trips more enjoyable. Here are my observations and suggestions.

maro

Choosing The Right Car

  • Shop around. See which car rental companies operate in the area where you are going. Check out their websites to see what they offer. There may be significant differences in price for the same car model offered by different companies. Other conditions may also differ, e.g., the included daily mileage, international travel restrictions, included insurance, and the deductible.
  • Local vs global. I noticed that local car rental companies may offer better rates than, e.g., Avis, Hertz. There are several caveats, though. First, the offered cars may be older and in worse condition. Second, be careful about the deposit: the local companies may require higher deposit on your credit card. If you don’t want to deal with traditional car rental businesses, check out RelayRides.
  • Pick something enjoyable. If you’re going to drive for many hours, choose a car that is enjoyable to drive and appropriate for the terrain/weather/climate. For example, if you go to the West Coast, convertible is a good choice; if you go to the jungle, get a jeep. If you don’t have to, don’t settle on the cheapest car just to save few bucks. Most likely, it will be underpowered and unpleasant to drive.
  • Check what cars are available in the group. Typically, when you book a car, you don’t book a specific model. Instead, the company books a car in a certain group. The group includes cars with, supposedly, similar characteristics. Check out whether you are OK with other cars in the group, in case you do not get what you were hoping to book.

jeep

Making a Reservation

  • Make multiple reservations at several companies. More often than not, car rental companies overbook cars as there are no commitments. Here is why: 1) people do not return cars on time, and 2) people do not pick up the booked cars. Lack of commitments means that if you make a reservation, you are not required to pick up the car; similarly, the company is not required to hold the car for you.
  • Never pay before actually renting the car. Some companies ask for a downpayment before you pick up the car. Unless you are almost sure you’ll pick up the vehicle, refuse to pay any money.
  • Find better rates. There are several ways to get discounted rates on rentals: 1) try booking much in advance; 2) use coupons, e.g., from airlines, as they can save you up to 15% on the rental; 3) check out deals on the company’s website; and 4) sign up for customer loyalty programs (they are free).
  • Check if your credit card offers insurance. That way you won’t need to worry about purchasing additional insurance. Many credit cards in the US offer car rental insurance. Beware, however, that the conditions differ. Whereas one credit card may cover you up to $100k, another may offer only $25k insurance.

At the Counter

  • First, ask about the available cars, but don’t mention the reservation. See if the offer is better than whatever you booked. If it is, take it.
  • Ask about one-way specials. If you need a one-way rental, it may be quite expensive if you book it online. Sometimes it happens that an office has many one-way rentals that people dropped off. Check at the counter if this is the case. If it is, offer them taking a one-way rental at a discounted price. It is in their best interest to balance the number of available cars.

audi

Picking up the Car

  • Carefully check the car condition. When you are ready to pick up the car, make a detailed visual inspection of the vehicle. Ask to mark every single ding and scratch. If they are reluctant, take pictures. That way you can avoid paying for the damage that you did not cause.

ram

Returning the Car

  • Remember to refuel the car. Car rental companies charge a lot for the fuel if you don’t return as much as you started with.
  • Don’t bother with cleaning up the car. Car rental companies clean up the vehicles themselves. The car can be very dirty and you won’t be charged any cleaning fee.

mustang

Grad School vs Industry Experience

graduation

I would have loved to read this blog post several years ago when I was still in grad school. Why? Pure curiosity. I’d like to share my experience from the two worlds: academia and industry. I have enjoyed them both, although in different ways; they encourage different work- and lifestyles. The post is fairly universal. Some observations, however, are inevitably influenced by my science/tech background.

Grad School

  1. Goal. Your main goal is to graduate. Period. Apart from classes and other lesser commitments, your focus is on writing publications that, eventually, lead to a thesis. The thesis shall be a coherent piece of writing. Having said that, you work within a very narrow area of knowledge. You rarely work on unrelated projects.
  2. Project flexibility. You have a lot of freedom when it comes to the topics you could work on. Just find something that is of interest to you and your professor, and you’re all set. Good professors are open-minded and full of ideas, so it’s not difficult.
  3. Tasks. I spent a lot of time on thinking, clarifying and sharing ideas, writing papers and paper reviews, attending talks/classes/presentations/conference calls, programming, traveling to conferences. In general, these are very intellectual tasks demanding a lot of focus and deep thinking.
  4. Work style flexibility. University labs tend to be small groups (<20 people). Collaboration in such an environment involves a lot of mutual trust between professors and grad students. Professors are too busy to micromanage each and every student. As long as you are self-directed, focused, and deliver work of quality, there is a great flexibility when it comes to how, when, and where you work. This is the most significant feature that I’m missing in the industry.
  5. Time flexibility. If you prepare publications, presentations, thesis, etc., nobody promises that working from 9am to 5pm is enough. In fact, it’s the opposite. In my last year of PhD I was working for the whole year 9am-11pm. It was my choice, it was enjoyable, but it was a lot of hard work. In the earlier years, I felt like I could go on a trip any day; it was up to me whether I work in the morning or in the night. Typically, however, I was doing research from 9am to 6pm. Free weekends and many vacation days.
  6. Getting your ass kicked. Any research idea and claim, that you express, will be criticized by others. In the academia, people tend to be very blunt, to the point, and don’t use unnecessary words. Hence, you won’t hear any corporate mumbo-jumbo, niceties, and words that weaken the message. Although comments are rarely rude, they are also rarely wrapped in a nice coating. If you are a fresh student, you may take it personally and feel bad about yourself. You quickly learn, however, that people criticize your work, not you as a person. You become thick-skinned and focus on the content of the criticism to improve your work. You also start appreciating the feedback. At least, someone took the time and effort to go through your ideas!
  7. Theory. If you propose an idea, you need to define it very precisely so that others can reproduce, understand, and criticize your results. Proper theory helps to ensure that your ideas are correct. In practice, you end up describing ideas formally.
  8. Prototypes. Academic research, especially in Computer Science, requires a lot of novelty from the proposed ideas. Often, you need to prototype the ideas in software to show that they work in practice. On the one hand, you have a lot of freedom when it comes to technology to implement the idea, and you don’t need to worry about crappy user interface, bad performance, lack of scalability, and other secondary requirements that are non-essential in experimental projects. On the other hand, very few people care about your prototypes.
  9. Personal development and entertainment. University offers endless opportunities for personal development: language classes, student clubs and societies, physical activities. All of that is either free of any additional cost, or is fairly cheap. On a daily basis, you can also interact with college students. You can continue living student lifestyle, enjoy parties, and cool trips.
  10. Low salary/stipend. Whereas I was very satisfied with my material situation as a single grad student, I knew a lot of students who were much less fortunate. What you can get as a grad student is nowhere close to what the industry offers. In grad school, it didn’t bother me much. I simply loved the research and wasn’t there for money. Growing as a person and getting the degree was the ultimate pay.

gears

Industry

  1. Goals. There is no single goal that you strive to achieve to say “I’m done, now I can retire“. Instead, you work on a variety of projects. Of course, the projects are within your area of speciality, but they don’t need to be related directly. You tend to focus on current issues and whatever is needed on the market.
  2. Real-world impact. You work on projects that matter a whole lot to the world. If people are willing to use your software, you can have a significant impact on how they go about things. It is a great feeling to know that your work matters to many people (as opposed to judging your work by few of experts as in the academia).
  3. Usefulness. Ideas in the industry are secondary. First and foremost, ideas don’t need to be novel, they need to be (almost) immediately useful. Second, it’s the implementation that actually matters, not merely a proposal of an idea.
  4. Focus on customers. As opposed to prototypes, the final product must be understandable to the customer, and shall be easy and pleasant to use. It means that significant resources are spent on polishing user interfaces, writing good documentation, and researching the market. Furthermore, seemingly non-essential requirements, such as performance, scalability, and reliability, often determine whether the product is a success or failure. This interplay between the multitude of requirements makes real-world projects significantly more complicated than the academic prototypes.
  5. Work-life balance. Unless you work for a startup, it is fairly easy to balance work and life. Weekly, you work around 40 hours, sleep another 40, waste 10 on “stuff”, and you are left with 78 hours for pursuing own ideas and enjoying life. On the one hand, your schedule becomes predictable. On the other hand, it is good to know that after coming back home you don’t need to work for another 6 hours writing publications.
  6. Company culture. If you are hired to do a job, you are bound to company’s culture, processes, and rules. Of course, it is possible to influence these, but it is significantly more difficult than in a research lab. Companies have much more structure and the relationship manager-employee differs from that of professor-student. It is much less intimate and personal. I believe that much of the structure and processes are the result of scalability and general mediocrity that sneaks in as the organization grows.
  7. Great salary. The industry offers very compelling salaries compared to academia. It is very simple: you are hired to do a job that people need urgently and are willing to pay for now. As such, it is much easier to afford a fancy lifestyle, travels, and all the materialistic stuff (house, cool car, fine foods and alcohols). It is nice, but it is also very addictive. Many people become enslaved to work. They take loans to buy expensive things, so they need to work more to pay back the loans.
  8. Perks and discounts. Established companies have high purchasing and negotiating power. Consequently, they can negotiate cool perks and discounts with other businesses, e.g., health insurance rates, car rentals, shopping discounts, museum discounts. It is a nice addition to complement the consumeristic lifestyle :-)

All in all, I wouldn’t say that one of the experiences is absolutely better than the other. They offer different tradeoffs. Despite the differences, there are also multiple similarities, such as ensuring correctness of ideas, validating ideas in real-world experiments, seeking feedback, working with like-minded people, and contributing to the world. Both, academia and industry, provide highly valuable and enriching experiences. In the next post, I’ll wrote about transferrable skills that I acquired in the academia, but are highly useful in the industry.

How Can You Take so Many Days Off?

cancun

That’s, perhaps, the second most frequently asked question I hear when we talk about traveling. My answer may disappoint you: I do not take many days off. But when I do, I do make sure I make good use of that time. Here’s how I travel quite extensively on only 25 days off per year (including public holidays).

Limited Obligations

My family is some 6500km away from Boston. Sure, I like visiting them once in a while. In the past, the lack of direct support forced me to be independent and to get my shit together. It also released me from frequent family visits, traditional holiday celebrations, etc. Nowadays, if there is a long weekend and I don’t feel like celebrating where I am, I travel and celebrate where I want to be.

salvador

Traveling on Long Weekends…

In the US and Canada, holiday celebrations are either before the weekend or right after. That enables traveling over the period of 3-5 days without using too many vacation days. That’s what I do. It’s a perfect period for a road-trip, a visit to a tropical island, or a trip to the opposite coast. If there are multiple days off in a row (e.g., during Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Year’s Eve), I absolutely don’t mind traveling for two weeks or so; 8 days off gives me 16 days of adventures.

forpalm

…Or a Week After

Traveling on a long weekend may be expensive due to the high demand for flight tickets and accommodation. One way of working around that is the following. I work on the actual long weekend (i.e., during the holiday) to make up the time, and then travel one week after, when the prices are lower.

boats

Weekend Trips

Perhaps, most of my trips happen over regular weekends. I leave Friday afternoon and come back Sunday night. No damage done. That’s enough time to experience a cool adventure and to get the gist of a foreign culture. If my flight is early afternoon/morning, I make up the time at work in advance and leave earlier to catch the flight.

airplanes

Conclusion

That’s all folks. I’m selling no magic; I avoid time wasting activities. As explained earlier, I travel, because it is very important to me. My paid vacation days are restricted to 18 (+7 public holidays). Instead of complaining about how short it is, I prefer to make the most of that time and to explore the world. (Worst case, unpaid vacation days are an option, as well.) Chances are that you have a way more vacation days than myself. I hope now you know what to do with them.

Much love from the above,
Kacper