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Amtrak Cascades deal: buying and redeeming points is often cheaper than buying a ticket directly

The Amtrak Guest Rewards program enables you to earn, buy, and redeem points for Amtrak travel. For the Amtrak Cascades train route between Vancouver, British Columbia and Eugene, Oregon, it is often cheaper to purchase points and use them for travel rather than buying tickets directly.

Enrolling in Amtrak Guest Rewards is free.

A ticket for any 1-way trip on the Amtrak Cascades route (a great train ride!) costs 1,500 points. A business ticket between any stops on the same route costs 2,000 points. In other words, if you go from Vancouver, BC to Eugene (the first and last stop) it costs you the same number of points as going between Seattle and Tacoma (which are only 2 stops apart). You can buy 1,500 points for $41.25 USD, and 2,000 points for $55 USD. (All prices mentioned are USD.) Once in a while Amtrak will have a promotion where buying different points amounts will get you extra points.

The regular prices for buying tickets directly will vary depending on the distance you travel, how far in advance you book, how fully booked that journey is, and of course whether there are any promotions.

The regular prices for a 1-way trip if you book at least 2 weeks in advance between Vancouver, BC and Seattle are as follows:

Non-refundable: $30
Refundable: $40
Business class: $62

The regular prices for a 1-way trip if you book at least 2 weeks in advance between Vancouver, BC and Portland are as follows:

Non-refundable: $47
Refundable: $62
Business class: $96

In other words, promotions aside, using those 2 examples, every ticket level is cheaper between Vancouver, BC and Portland. Business class tickets are cheaper for both example routes.

Refunds for points tickets are apparently possible before you’ve taken the trip, with the points being returned to your Amtrak Guest Rewards account.

If you’re travelling on the Amtrak Cascades route, compare the pricing for booking directly on against buying and then redeeming points. It might be cheaper to buy and redeem points!

How to fix: random exclamation marks in e-mails

If you are programmatically sending e-mails, you might troubleshoot random question marks and random exclamation marks in e-mail bodies. Question marks are often caused by a character encoding issue. Exclamation marks are often caused by a line length issue, and that is almost certainly the case if the seemingly random exclamation mark is followed by a line break. If you view the source of an e-mail — in the Thunderbird e-mail client you can do this by clicking “View > Message Source” — it will be much easier to spot whether you have really long lines of characters.

Line length limits were defined in the Internet standard RFC 2822 and subsequently in RFC 5322. (Warning: they are long and dry reading, although if you’re already reading this post…)

Specifically, those standards state:

“Each line of characters MUST be no more than 998 characters, and SHOULD be no more than 78 characters, excluding the CRLF.”

(The CRLF refers the line break.)

In PHP, you can use the wordwrap function to auto-wrap long lines.

// Force the lines to wrap at 75 characters; if more than 998 characters, you will end up with a forced line break and an exclamation mark
// Note: this is not UTF-8 safe but that's OK because we're not allowing it to cut in the middle of a word
$emailBody = wordwrap( $emailBody, 75, "\r\n" );

HTML dev tools: testing the hover state of elements in Chrome and Firefox

Something I recently discovered, which has been around for at least a year in Chrome and at least a couple of years in Firefox / Firebug: you can preview and debug the hover state in their dev tools without actually hovering over the elements. This is very handy, especially if you’re familiar with the frustration of hovering over the element with your mouse, then trying to quickly move to edit the CSS without losing the hover state.


Testing the hover state in Chrome


Testing the hover state in Firefox

You can also test the “active”, “focus”, and “visited” (in Chrome) states.

Mortgage renewal considerations: principal prepayment privileges and collateral mortgages

When your mortgage term is up for renewal, there is no shortage of factors to consider. Variable vs fixed, interest rate, and term length are the headline details. Beyond those aspects, there are quite a few other factors, some of which aren’t always brought up by your mortgage broker or bank.

For me, annual principal prepayment privileges and collateral charges were two issues that played a big role in my renewal process.

When you enter a new mortgage term, you are often told about an annual principal prepayment privilege, which allows you to make lump sum payments totaling between 10-20% of your original mortgage amount every year without penalty. These payments are applied fully to the principal amount remaining. When you’re renewing your mortgage with the same lender, the “original mortgage amount” is usually considered the initial amount on your first mortgage term. When you’re renewing your mortgage with a different lender, the “original mortgage amount” is usually considered the mortgage renewal amount.

This can make a big difference in how much of your mortgage you can pay off every year. If you opened a 5-year $200,000 mortgage in 2008 with a 15% annual principal prepayment privilege, you could pay up to $30,000 extra per year. If in 2013 you had $100,000 of principal remaining and you were to renew with the same lender, you would still be able to pay up to $30,000 extra per year. If you were to switch lenders, and they offered the same 15% annual principal prepayment privilege, you would only be able to pay up to $15,000 extra per year.

As for a collateral charge mortgage, the major con of such a mortgage is that at the regular renewal time when your term is up, you have to pay extra legal fees if you wanted to switch lenders. Switching lenders at renewal time is usually considered a normal, no-fee thing to do. Some lenders, such as TD Canada Trust and ING Direct, currently only offer a collateral charge mortgage, and sometimes do not point this out to you. On the flip side, there are some benefits to having a collateral charge mortgage, related to refinancing and accessing more credit. CBC Marketplace explains this a bit more; be sure to do your own research about collateral charge mortgages.

In general, remember to make your own list of what is important for you in a mortgage. Be sure that the mortgage broker or bank, who might be more focused on promoting certain products and highlighting certain benefits, takes the time to listen to your needs first. Not every mortgage is the same, and different home buyers / owners have different needs!

12th Street Barbers New Westminster hours of operation

I’ve been going to 12th Street Barbers in New Westminster regularly for over a year now. The barber (there’s only been one as long as I’ve been going) always does a meticulous job and is very pleasant. It’s $12 for a regular hair cut and $9 for seniors.

I always forget the hours of operation, so I’ve decided to note them here:

Monday 9:30am-4:00pm
Tuesday 9:15am-5:00pm
Wednesday 9:15am-5:00pm
Thursday 9:15am-5:00pm
Friday 9:15am-5:00pm
Saturday 9:15am-5:00pm
Sunday Closed

Note that the hours are subject to change and you should call 604-528-9993 to double check!