Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Frequent Flyer Secrets: Tips for Racking Up the Travel Points

Frequent flyer miles -- the more you fly, the more you get.

But racking up enough miles to redeem them for actual tickets can take years of flying, years of, as it's called, B.I.S. – "butt in seat." Unless you know a few tricks that can earn you miles faster.

For example, did you know you can get miles by the millions without ever getting on a plane?

Money-saving travel expert Rick Ingersoll started the "Frugal Travel Guy" blog to offer tips to the common man. He hosts conferences for frequent flyer mile hobbyists that attract upwards of 500 people. In the past year, Ingersoll said he and his wife were able to fly to several places on tickets paid with his millions of miles.

"This year we have gone to Greece," he said. "From Savannah to Athens and then down to a little island, flew over to Dubrovnik in Croatia spent some time there, then up to split also in Croatia, then up to Amsterdam and back all in business class."

Total flight cost: 120,000 frequent flyer miles apiece plus $60 apiece in taxes.

Trick #1: Apply For Credit Cards With Bonus Miles, If You're Eligible:

But those miles are nothing to folks like Ingersoll, who is a frequent flyer millionaire many times over. The first trick he recommends is to cash in on credit card bonuses. Several banks now offer new credit card holders sign-up bonuses of 20,000, 40,000 and sometimes 70,000 miles or points.

According to Ingersoll, the more credit cards you sign up for, the more points you get, though most cards require you spend at least a few thousand dollars first. While this may sound like something will wreck your credit score, Ingersoll said that's not the case.

"Every time you apply for a credit card, they do what is called an inquiry on your credit report," he explained. "It costs between 2 to 5 points on your score. It is not a big hit on your score."
However, Ingersoll cautions that people with shaky credit, who cannot pay in full on a monthly basis or who are applying for a mortgage in the near future, should NOT be playing this game.

Trick #2: "Mileage Runs"

It's a method for people who have the time to get on a plane and just fly around over a weekend.

"One day I flew from Austin to Dallas to Orange County, California, left the airport and then spent five hours with my relatives. Then got back on a plane flew to O'Hare, then Frankfurt, Germany, sat in the lounge for about an hour and then Frankfurt back to O'Hare back to Austin," said Bob Dashman, one of Ingersoll's conference participants.

Trick #3: "Mattress Runs"

For hotel-hoppers, it's called "Mattress Runs." Lots of hotel chains offer points that can be converted into airline miles or free hotel nights. Of course, this also can get extreme when people like Win Schaeffer, another conference participant, hear about the Hampton Inn in Orlando, Fla., offering a bonus for each separate stay in a short period of time.
"I take my son to Disney World, we hop from hotel to hotel every night: 13 days, 13 stays," he said.

Trick #4: Rent Cars Through Rental Companies That Offer Points

If you don't feel like flying or sleeping for points, you could take a drive. Several rental car places also offer airline miles or points. Typically you get a few hundred points for one or two-day rental, but when one company raised the bonus to 10,000 for a one-day rental, George Smart went to this local airport and rented every car off the lot.

"Which took about four or five hours," he said. "About 12 or 15 in morning, I would get maybe 60 to 100,000 miles for a very inexpensive investment. That's the equivalent of going to Europe on discount twice."

It's Ingersoll's view that anyone can be a frequent flyer millionaire, earning and using thousands of points that will get you into business or first class where there are free drinks, free snacks and no crowds. With the help of points, Ingersoll and his wife flew to China and back for almost nothing -- in business class.

Total flight cost: 110,000 frequent flyer miles apiece.
"The only thing we have to pay is we have to pay the taxes on flights," he said. "We went to China for 10 days. We flew from Chicago to Beijing, went to see the Great Wall of China, went to Xi'an and saw the terracotta warriors, flew into Shanghai and again nothing more than taxes. That one was maybe $150."
Ingersoll believes that this is something not only that ordinary folks can do, but should do.
Extreme? Perhaps. But only the tip of the iceberg of the techniques were talked about here, all of which, frankly, take a lot of work and planning. But when you're settled into the big comfy chair for your long flight, Ingersoll says it really will seem worth it.

How to Customize Keyboard Shortcuts in Photoshop

Each of us who work in Adobe Photoshop use different tools from drop down menus, which can be costly in terms of time. Why click through menus when you can create keyboard shortcuts for a variety of tools and actions? With simple keystrokes, you can save precious seconds. Adobe Photoshop also offers the super-useful solution of allowing users to create custom keystrokes.
To get started, click on the menu bar and select Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts (shortcut Alt + Shift + Ctrl + K or for Mac users Alt + Shift + Command + K).
Here you will find default keyboard shortcuts for application menus, panels and tools.
You can customize shortcuts for commonly-used tool and. For example, Transform Path > Flip Horizontal and Flip Vertical has no preset keyboard shortcut but I have opted to add shortcut Ctrl +. and Ctrl + , (Mac: Alt + Shift + Command + K).
One thing you should understand is that you should only create custom keyboard shortcuts using keystrokes that are not assigned to other tools. Creating duplicate shortcuts can cause problems for the user.
Now you can see the new keyboard shortcut you have created.
In keyboard shortcuts menu option, you can select that menu for additional options, such as adding custom keys to the default Adobe Photoshop set on your local computer.
In keyboard shortcuts, use the Summarize button to save all new or modified default options in a file with the .htm extension, which then can be opened with any type of browser.
Saved changes can be exported to another computer (so you can create favorite setups at home and at work). Be aware, though, that this option may not work if you are using different versions Photoshop.
If you want to reset back to default settings, hold down Alt + Ctrl + Shift (on Mac Command + Option + Shift) while starting Photoshop. A dialog box will appear asking if you wish to delete the preferences/settings file. Make sure you are certain before clicking ahead, because this will reset all default settings in Photoshop.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

4 tricks for designing data-heavy applications

While big data makes for useful applications, it can also stand in the way of clean, usable interface designs. With more and more web applications built upon mountains of data collected in the cloud, how can you deliver all that data without turning the resulting application into a visual train wreck?
Balancing complex data needs with a simple user interface is a challenge for any web application designer today. Stripping away information will simplify the user interface, but less data often means a less functional and useful application. Yet, keeping all that contextual data can create an unusable monster of an app.
Through the process of redesigning our customer service application, we learned several important lessons for designing simple interfaces built on complex data. We’re sharing a few tips here:

1. Know your use case

The central tenet of good UI design is to start with the problem you are trying to solve, not the data you have or the design you want. If your key goal is “we want it to look slick,” you’ll be basing design decisions on the wrong criteria. 
Define a use case that will guide your design process. How do most people use your tool? Understand that you cannot please every single user. As a designer, your aim should be to provide the best tool for most of your users, most of the time. 
In Zendesk’s case, we wanted to make the process of resolving customer issues faster and more personal, meaning the support person should know the customer as much as possible. This criterion shaped each design decision and gave us a framework to prioritize all the data we had.
Zendesk screenshot

2. Start with everything, then simplify

Designing data-heavy applications is more like sculpting than painting. Rather than starting with a blank canvas, you begin with something massive and start chiseling away. When it comes to designing a section of your app, start with all the data that could possibly fit in the section, then start organizing and prioritizing the data according to your main use case.
For instance, when it came time to design the support ticket page in the new Zendesk, we included everything that was potentially related to an actual support ticket and made it the same typeface, size, and color. The result was a horrifying and impenetrable mess. We then set out to whittle down, prioritize, and organize the information. We hid items, changed font weight, and added interactivity where needed. Each decision was based on our use case priorities defined above. 
Zendesk screenshot

3. Use the content itself as your design elements

With data-heavy applications, there’s no need to add extra chrome. Drop shadows, sweeping gradients, multiple textures, and other extra design elements just add visual complexity to an already complex application. 
This doesn’t mean your design needs to be black text on a white background. Instead, rely on the content and data itself to create visually pleasing experiences.
Invest your time in typography; reduce words where you can with solid and meaningful iconography and use color to group data and content in consistent ways.
Zendesk screenshot

4. Keep everything agile

Every design can be redesigned and every redesign can be redesigned again.
As more and more people use your application, you will discover areas that can be improved and simplified further. In order to iterate toward a better and cleaner design, it helps to break down all the elements of the application (data, functionality, design) into the smallest possible components on the backend.
Building your machine so it can be easily taken apart and rearranged will help you make improvements and meet changing needs as you go.
Zendesk screenshot


In summary, the twin goals of simplicity and data-richness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, big data can lead to great innovation in user interface design.
Regardless of the application, the lessons of starting with a use-case, sculpting rather than painting, designing with your content, and staying agile will help build simplicity on top of complexity.

Top 7 Chrome Experiments for Designers

Google Chrome Experiments, a project by Google.Inc, is gaining popularity day by day. It is the display hub of latest web technologies and a playground of techno-artists. And while taking time off from making games and playing with visualizations, these artists sometimes create stunning tools that are highly useful for artists and designers like us.
There are more than 550 web browser based experiments and projects on the Chrome Experiment site and less than 20 of them are usable by designer. Well what can I say, artists–cum–programmers are fickle creatures. They make what they like, when they like and atleast I am grateful for the tools that they have made.
So going by this glass-half-full spirit, I present to you top 7 Google Chrome Experiments tools useful for designers

Paint brush

Paint brush, just like the simple paint software of operating systems, is a drawing tool. But that’s where this similarity ends. This is a little generative art tool that gives the impression of actual paint brushes and brush stroke. You can change colors and can even change the shape of the output. A simple, but useful tool that could be used to create a work of art.
Paint brush


A basic online drawing tool but it has number of unique brushes that produce some patterns. The tool has brushes that can be used to get a sketch like pattern, or a metallic shaded pattern, or a simple brush that gives a fur like pattern, along with some other brushes. You can make these types of design using Photoshop or a good image creator, but this one is easier and simpler.


This is a great tool to create random patterns using a selection of 20 different pattern brushes. Well to be frank, its more of a toy than an actual design tool, but in the hands of a creative artist, it can create wonders.

Flower power

Another simple, but useful tool. This tool has a single type of brush that produces multicolored flower like pattern. You can change size of flowers, color variety of flowers, and Bezier curve value. It can create really attractive flower banners of text or anything you wish flowery.
Flower power

Neon flames

This tool produces a generative particle spread patterns that resembles kind of like a forest-fire. However it is a highly customizable tool and can be utilized to create attractive backgrounds or banners in a short amount of time. Do try this tool, it’s also a great toy.
Neon flames


An online 3-D drawing tool that produces PNG images instead of confusing 3-D formats; because in the end the design would be used in an image. The only limitation is that it produces a building block kind of pattern with not-so-small blocks. But that in it-self has its own charm. Simple, and unique, Voxels is a great tool for architects and 3-d designers.


Silk is a generative art tool that is great for creating backgrounds or wallpapers. It produces a silk like pattern and could be customized according to color and pattern symmetry. The tool may sound unimpressive but if you will use it you will realize that through this tool anyone can create an attractive work of art.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

How to Plan a Trip to India: 11 Easy Steps

For the traveler – novice and experienced – India is a milestone. It’s a word that elicits surprise and a little bit of awe when uttered as a destination. Whether you’re at the phase of getting excited at the idea of traveling to India or have already started budgeting for airfare, this post is for details the “how” piece of planning a trip to India.
I’ve traveled to India on two Big Trips (and there will be a third, fourth,) and consolidated what others and I have learned on planning a trip to this amazing part of the world.  If you’re reading this and have visited India – please, share your own tips in the comments section.

1. Decide Where You Want to Go/Do

Visiting India
It’s a big sub-continent with different experiences awaiting the traveler across every state line. There’s  tropics and beaches in the South, tiger treks in the center, vibrant metropolises in the North, the heart of Hinduism and Buddhism along the Ganges plain in Bihar, serene lunar landscapes in Ladakh, and the tip of the world at Kanyakumari.
Other than the Taj Mahal, think about what you want your big trip to India to be.  LP offers some suggested itineraries to cut across and around, but the great thing is, like any trip, a trip to India can be anything you want it to be other than the typical backpacker trail.
My first itinerary to India was all about opening my heart. To do so, I had these loose travel intentions: visit the Taj Mahal, touch the holy Ganges, volunteer, take a course in Buddhism in Bodh Gaya, lay on the beaches in the South, and a boat ride through the backwaters of Kerala.

2. Decide When to Go

Darjeeling India
It’s tourist season from October to February for a reason because the weather is temperate and pleasant. At this time, if you start in the north and finish in the south, the nice weather will follow you around the country, but the shoulder months avoid an influx of crowd and not too much heat or rain. Summer is best for the far North near the Himalayas.
Rivers run through Kolkata streets May to September. Jungle humidity slows movement in Kerala in April.  Blistering heat scorches any face gazing at the wonders of the Taj Mahal in June. Those filmy cotton backpacker clothes barely warm you enough on the cold nights of January in Delhi.
Another reason to travel to India during this time – Festivals! Diwali, Holi, Durga Puja to name a few. Check out this Indian Festival Calendar for more.
Visiting India during these times will reward you with momentous experiences and a special opportunity to bond with celebrating locals.

3. Begin with a Tour

I know it’s against the independent traveler ethos to organize a tour. But the truth is, traveling to India can be a little chaotic and overwhelming for the first timers. In my experience the best way to ease into travel in India was through a grass roots, locally resourced tour. It’s what I did to a) make that commitment to go and b) ease into India with the support of a tour guide and other travelers.
I used Intrepid Travel, but can also recommend Wheel Life Travel.

4.  Get the Plane Ticket There and Back, but Not in Between

Visiting India
The secret to traveling in India is to not plan too much. Planning is expensive and prone to stress. My recommendation is to book the to and the fro –your in and out of India and then wait until the rest of the trip develops to book the in-county travel.
It’s tempting to book all the hotels and train tickets ahead of time, I know, I’ve been there as a former super travel planner. In truth, it’s an expensive way to make you feel better and maintain control. In India, things change so much – why stress yourself with getting to a reservation in time when you want to sit on the Goa beach a little longer sipping that Fenny? Or there may be train riots and you’ll miss your connection (Happened to me!).  Arrange the there and away and everything else will fall into place.

5. Get Your Visa

For US citizens, India requires a 6-month tourist visa before entering the country, which removes any thoughts of a quick escape to the country. Personally, it’s been that nice pause when I do want to run away a little form real life and think – oh I just want to go to India. Oh wait, I need a visa. As of this writing, you’ll have to send in a copy of your birth certificate and proof of your country residency. Remember, your visa is valid six months from the day you get it, not 6 months form the day of your trip. I recommend thinking/planning for it now.  For US Citizens, visit Travisa to get started.

6. Women: Work Those Conservative Clothes

Visiting India
Fellow traveler Joanne and I joked that the Lonely Planet description of women traveling alone in India sounded like you were going to get raped at any second unless you wore a full burka. The truth is far from that, but it is important for women to dress conservatively for their own safety. You’re a guest in a country with much different attitudes towards the role of women and cleavage, shoulders, and bare knees invites stares, comments, and unwanted attention.
Recommended Clothing:
  • Overall loose, cottony clothing
  • Capris and pants below the knee
  • Shirts that cover your shoulders and are loose over the chest
  • A sarong or swimsuit cover-ups for beach areas, especially outside of Goa
At the markets, you can always find the Salwar Kameez  – a wardrobe staple of Indian women.

7. Pack For Bugs, Power Outages, and Overnight Train Trips

visiting India - packing
My friend B asked me, “what’s traveling in India like? ” There are many superlatives too describe the trip, but day to day, hotel to hotel on the backpacker trail, it’s like camping. There are bugs, electricity challenges, and a new meaning of “comfort” on long-haul bus or train trips.
I recommend that when packing think of camping and bring the following.
  • Bug spray (recommend Burt’s bees) and malaria medicine and other vaccinations.
  • Flashlights, batteries and candles for power outages
  • Books/Kindle, iPod, and a sleep sheet for long train rides
  • And no wheeled suitcases! Uneven streets, stairways to cross train tracks, and bus racks mean that the backpack is the only way to go.

8. Give your Friends and Family Your Itinerary and Important Docs

There were moments when your family members may question your decision to travel to India. My own parents thought I was a little nuts. Best friend B sent me an article about not getting crushed in a religious stampede. She had just read an article about one such happening. Leaving her with my itinerary showed her that I was not going in such an area and I would “keep my elbows up” to avoid being crushed.
Leaving them my itinerary and papers made them feel comforted at least by knowing loosely where I’d be and when. My mother used this information to monitor world news to make sure there were no earthquakes/storms of locusts/forest fires in my destinations.

9. Bookmark these India Travel Blogs and Web Sites

In my experience, these sites are an excellent resources for India information outside the typical backpacker/travel planning web sites for planning and on the road. Bookmark them because you’ll go back to them again and again – before and during your trip.
  • India Mike: A huge message board made for India-bound and in-country travelers
  • Make My Trip: India’s version of Expedia. I found great in-country airfare deals on short notice AND it added online train reservations.  This last fact is a huge relief for anyone who’s tried to use the official train reservation site.
  • Breathe Dream Go: An excellent web site/blog that is a love letter to India. It has practical advice for women travelers and destination insights where the author’s clear love of this subcontinent comes through.
  • Wanderlust and Lipstick: Another great blog by a women with a passion of travel to India.
  • Train travel in India on Seat 61 This site gives a comprehensive overview of train travel in India – an experience all in itself. My advice is to read this site and then consider booking 3Tier AC when in country. It’s a little more comfortable than sleeper class and you’re definitely traveling local.

10. Arrange Your First Night Hotel and Airport Pickup

visiting india
I’d been a seasoned traveler when I touched down in Delhi for the first time, but nothing could really prepare me for the hawkers, heat and odd burning smell upon arrival. Looking through the masses after a 15-hour flight from Chicago, I felt such relief when I saw a small, smartly dressed man holding a placard with my name on it.
At the Delhi airport, there can be a long queue for the official taxi stand and hawkers ready to take you out of that line and possibly into robbery central. I’d read horror stories of rip-offs at the airport  – the tourism authority warns against taking rides outside that line. Arrive with this one thing planned – your hotel and transportation, which usually can be arranged through the hotel. Check out Hostelworld and Trip Advisorfor list of hotels.

11. Read These Books and Get Into the “Traveling in India” Spirit

Between all this planning don’t forget that you are GOING TO INDIA…To keep the excitement going above all the logistics, check out these non-guide books. With the beautiful words, take the literary ride through different parts of the country with the authors:
Traveler Stories by Westerners
Traveler Stories by Indians
Excellent Novels By Indians
Admittedly, some are not all happy tales, but they are excellent stories. If you read them before or during your trip, the different areas of the subcontinent will come alive for you as they did for me. These are my favorite books, but in searching for links, I found this great list of on a blog about Indian literature for more book ideas.

Helpful Link:

NYTimes Travel: 1, 2, or 3 weeks in India


That’s a lot of things to do to bring your dream of traveling to India to a reality. The list can be as long or as short as you need and take heart – all this preparation will pay off with a Big Trip of a lifetime.  It’s my hope that this post makes traveling to India seem all the more do-able.

Friday, December 7, 2012

SEO Checklist for Web Designing

Domain Name – Your domain name should be brandable (example: Google, Amazon, Yahoo!, etc.), easy to say, and even easier to remember. Don’t worry too much about stuffing keywords into your domain name. Keywords in domain names no longer have the punch they used to.

www or not www – The choice is yours, or, pick one and stick with it. I recommend using the www because the basic Joe Schmoe Web server tends to type in www, anyway.

Simple Design – Don’t reinvent the wheel. If your design is complex, chances are it will hinder your visitors’ ability to navigate and view the site plus it will slow down development. The simpler the better.

Don’t create directories further than three levels down from the root directory – The closer pages are to the home page in the directory structure the better. Keep things organized but don’t overorganize. If you have one file or sub-directory in a directory there should be a VERY valid reason.

File/Directory Names Using Keywords – Your filenames and directory names should contain keywords. If your page is about Idaho potatoes then the filename should be idaho-potatoes.

Static URLs – Static URLs are URLs that are not dynamically generated. A static URL looks like and dynamic URLs look like You can make dynamic URLs spiderable by search engines but it’s a lot easier to get things indexed with static URLs.

Think Small – The smaller your Web pages are, the faster they load. A single page should be less than 15K (unless absolutely necessary) and the entire page including graphics should be less than 50K (unless absolutely necessary). Remember, not everyone is on a high-speed Internet connection; there are still people without a 56K modem.

Hyphens – Use hyphens ( – ) and not underscores ( _ ) to separate words in directory and file names. Most search engines parse a hyphen like a reader would parse a space. Using underscores makes what_would_you_do look like whatwouldyoudo to most search engines. You should definitely separate words in your URLs.

Navigation on Every Page – You should place consistent navigation on every page of your Web site. Your navigation should link to the major sections of your Web site. It would also make sense for every page on your Web site to link back to the home page.

Site Map – You should create a site map that links to the major sections and sub-sections of your Web site. The site map should be linked to from your Web site’s home page at the very least. Preferably the site map should be linked to from every page. Recommend file names for your site map are “sitemap.html” or “site-map.html.”

Title – The title of the page should be used in the TITLE tag and at the top of every page. The title should be keyword rich (containing a max of 7 to 10 words) and descriptive.

Description META Tag – Some people say META tags are dead but some search engines will actually use them underneath a pages title on search engine result pages (SERPs). Use no more than 150 characters including spaces and punctuation. Your description should be a keyword rich, complete sentence.

Keyword META Tag – A listing of keywords that appear in the page. Use a space to separate keywords (not a comma). Arrange keywords how they would be searched for or as close to a complete sentence as possible. This tag is basically dead but by creating it when you create the page it allows you to come back eons later and realize what keywords you were specifically targetting. If the keyword doesn’t appear at least twice in the page then it shouldn’t go in the Keyword META Tag. Also, try to limit the number of total keywords to under twenty.

SEO Checklist for Web Designing

Robots META Tag – Some search engine crawlers abide by the Robots META Tag. This gives you some control over what appears in a search engine and what doesn’t. This isn’t an essential aspect of search engine optimization but it doesn’t hurt to add it in.

Heading Tags – Heading tags should be used wherever possible and should be structured appropriately (H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6). You shouldn’t start a page with an H2 tag. If H1 by default is too big then use CSS to style it effectively. Remember that most search engines like to see a heading tag then text or graphics; not H1 followed immediately by H2.

ALT Tags – Every image should have an ALT tag. Use a keyword rich description of what the image is. If the image contains text use the text in the image. This is also a usability/accessibility tool.

More text than HTML – A page should have more text content than markup language.

Anchor Text – Anchor text is the text used to link to a page. Using keywords in anchor text is a very good idea and will improve a page’s performance in SERPs.

Use Text Links, Not Images – If you’re going to link to something use text. Text in images can’t be read by search engines. The only time this rule doesn’t apply is when you’re linking to something with a well known logo. Even then it’s still better to use a text link. If you must use an image as a link then make sure you give it a good ALT tag.

Gobs of Content – The more content, the better. Having pages upon pages of original, relevant content is the best form of search engine optimization.

Add New Content Often – If you can add a new page of content every day then your site will stay fresh and give search engine crawlers a reason to keep coming back day in and day out.

Keyword Density – This is a touchy topic among Web developers and search engine optimizers. Some say 5% is more than enough. Chris Short says your main keywords shouldn’t have a density of more than 30% and should be higher than the densities of other phrases and words.

Build It, Put It Online – Your site should be built and in “update mode” once it’s uploaded to your Web server. Don’t add a page at a time to your Web server when you’re first building your Web site. Build your Web site first then upload it. Add new content as needed.

Use a robots.txt File – Every good crawler looks for a robots.txt file in your root directory. I would highly recommend creating a valid robots.txt just to appease these search engines and at the very least eliminate 404 errors from building up in your log files.

Validation – Every page on your Web site should adhere to W3C standards as closely as possible. Some say page validation can help your ranking in SERPs (the jury is still out on that one). But, standards compliant Web pages do help with cross browser compatibility.

Link Popularity – Once your Web site has been well established, it’s time to build up your link popularity. The more relevant inbound links a Web site has, the better its rankings will be.

SEO Checklist for Web Designing

Analyze Traffic – Read your log files often. Make sure you’re not getting traffic you don’t want and getting traffic you do want. Keeping a pulse on your traffic allows you to better optimize your pages.

NO TRICKS – If it doesn’t seem ethical, then it isn’t a good idea. If it doesn’t help your visitors, then don’t do it.

NO FRAMES – Don’t use frames, ever.

NO BROKEN LINKS – Linking to pages that don’t exist is a very bad thing. Search engines and people alike hate that.