Wednesday, September 26, 2007

miscellaneous product recommendations

Net10 and Tracfone phones rock, especially if you don't talk over 200 minutes per month on your cell phone -- and you won't pay all those extra taxes and surcharges that drive your cell phone bill from $60 per month to $66 per month. GrandCentral rocks and lets you answer and receive calls at any numbers you tell it to ring; so when someone calls, you can answer either your cell or home or office line, as they all ring. Skype rocks; pay $30 annually and make all the outgoing calls you want for free to the US and Canada.

Autopage 420 car alarms give two-way remote alarms so you know up to a mile away if your car is being broken into. That way you can run to your car and get shot by the thief.

Those nice-looking Apple Cinema displays that my friends were drooling over a couple of years ago proved to have lots of problems; the HP 24" LCD that I ended up buying instead of an Apple is just as good in my opinion (I used both over a period of six months) and was less expensive. I am up to my fourth Powerbook since they came out with the present Titanium/Aluminum design and they have been completely reliable.

If you are green or thrifty, then using anything other than rechargeable NiMh batteries is ridiculous. They hold a charge for a long time now and have more power than alkalines.

If you want to get email addresses for your small business, group, family, whatever, in the form "xxx@commandoes.com" -- such as norb@norbertwu.com, office@norbertwu.com -- it used to be a bit difficult, and now it is easy. Google Apps will do it for you. I moved my entire office's emails to Google Apps Mail, and it works just the same as when I had to pay a web hosting service to administer my emails. Far less problems so far; Google's spam blocking is better, and I have no instances where mail just disappears and I do not receive it (a huge problem with my other service, which just junked emails with invalid return address like "noreply@xxx.com"). I can access my emails using a standard email program like Outlook or Apple Mail, or use Google's web-baseed interface. I forward all emails to another Gmail account so have an archive of all past emails.

If you invest, then Bank of America is not a bad second place for an account. If you have $100K in assets in an investment account, you get a free American Express Accolades card, which supposedly lets you get into all kinds of airport lounges and has other benefits. If you have $25K in banking accounts (be sure these are not accounts that sweep funds into an investment account), then you are a Premier customer and get a Premier banking officer. This allows you to get 30 free stock trades per month. Also, BofA's investment arm has many mutual funds that are NTF (no transaction fee) such as SLASX and T. Rowe Price funds -- mutual funds that I was interested in, but had transaction charges through my main brokerage.

As a BofA Premier client, all banking fees are waived -- I never pay any account fees, monthly minimum fees, wire transfer fees, etc. But you do need to keep a $25K minimum in a CD, checking, and/or savings account.

Airlines love to anger their customers

Here's something that the airlines do that seems to have the sole purpose of angering the customer. I am a frequent flyer with United Airlines and try to fly them as much as possible. I've generally had good experiences with them, although every frequent traveler has horror stories. Mine might be the time on my way to Japan in November 2001 when a male flight attendant came by with a flashlight to make sure our seatbelts were fastened. I was watching a movie, it was late, and frankly I did not want to be bothered. He shined his light on me, and I did not hear him at first. When I finally understood what he wanted, I grumbled under my breath and put on the dang seatbelt. He leaned over and said in my ear "If you want to get arrested, just keep it up." Now, I admit that this was in the months after 9-11. It was interesting to watch the flight crews' reaction in those days. If you flew in the first few months after 9-11, the flight crews treated every passenger like a criminal. They threatened you with arrest if you did not listen to their every command immediately, and flying was more like being in prison than ever before.

After a few months of this, the airlines realized that this attitude and treatment of their passengers would probably drive the passengers away. So I saw the needle swing all the way to the other side. On a flight a few months after being threatened with arrest for not buckling my seatbelt immediately (and not having great hearing, and being a bit tired at 2AM) -- I was in the first class/business class cabin on a flight to New York. The captain came out, thanked all of us for flying United, and introduced himself by name to all of us and shook everyone's hand. That was a bit much. I didn't appreciate being threatened with arrest, but on the other hand, I have no need or desire to shake the captain's hand. I wonder why the airlines can't just do things with moderation and good common sense.

On to my present complaint: why does United send you these $25 paper discount certificates when these paper things cause nothing but trouble and wasted time? Here's the deal, and I've tried enough to use these that I am an expert. As a frequent flyer or a user of one of their airline's credit cards, you get a paper discount coupon for $25. However, you can only use this coupon if you call in and reserve your flight with an agent on the phone. And if you book a flight through an agent, then they charge you a $15 fee for using a live person rather than the web. On top of this, you have to either mail your certificate in, or hand the certificate over in person to a ticketing agent, which costs another $10. Voila! Your $25 certificate has just cost you a huge hassle and saved you absolutely nothing. If you mail the certificate in, you have to spend a great deal of time getting the instructions just right, and you run the risk of losing your seat and even your flight if the certificate is mishandled, late, or lost in the mail.

My advice -- tear these things up as soon as you get them. They will cause you nothing but aggravation. I have never, EVER been able to use one of these things without realizing that I was a fool to even try.

United seemed to have solved this problem. I forget how I got this (probably by getting hosed by the airline at some point), but I have an electronic certificate number good for $50 off now. Here are the instructions:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx is your electronic certificate number.
To use your e-certificate, go to united.com and enter your origin and destination, along with your travel dates. Next, click on "More Search Options," enter your e-certificate number under the "Electronic certificate or Promotion code" box and then click on "Search." All flights selected must be designated with a green star to receive this discount. Select your flights and your discount will be calculated automatically. Ticketing and travel must be completed by 6/30/2008(mm/dd/yyyy).

Here's the problem. I've now booked two flights through United for the next three months. On a trip to Maui, the e-certificate could not be used. On a trip to Orlando, the only flights that had the green star were $200 to $500 more expensive than other flights. Another great example of how airlines these days are pleasing their customers.