July 11 2015

Finishing My Fredericton Trip Report and Pondering the Wisdom of Off-Season Travel

Posts from this trip:

 

For many, travel decisions are mainly driven by the destination. People decide where they want to go, then book flights and lodging accordingly.

That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, but it doesn’t work as well for me. Because my travel list is long. Basically, I want to go (almost) everywhere.

When “everywhere” is your preferred destination, specific locations are somewhat irrelevant.

Combine that with my other favorite sport – deal hunting – and much of my travel decisions are driven by economics. Where can I go cost-efficiently at this time? (To clarify, “cost-efficient” and “cheap” are not synonymous.)

With this strategy, I’ve had some fantastic travel experiences for nearly-negligible costs.

I jetted off to Amsterdam on a whim, staying in one of the finest hotels in the world, for a total cash cost of about $200 (flights, hotels, and sightseeing included).

I took a 12-day, luxury tour of Egypt for a fraction of the typical price.

Recently I stayed at – to name a few – the very nice Delta Fredericton for $25/night, the 4.5-star InterContinental San Francisco for under $50/night, and the new Staybridge Suites Birmingham (in England, not Alabama) for about $32/night.

 

But bargains occasionally entail compromise

For example, an award flight might not be available on my preferred date.  So I have to adjust my schedule.

Or – to the point of this post – I end up visiting a place during the off-season. Like the arid desert that is Egypt in the peak of summer.

Or Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, in the middle of winter.

My week-long Fredericton trip was almost entirely economics-based, with a total cash cost of about $100 – flights and hotels included. (I don’t typically count meals and ground transportation since I incur those regardless of whether I’m traveling.)

  • The flights were free. I didn’t even spend frequent flyer miles because I added Fredericton as a stopover en route to Birmingham, England. (On a round-trip international award ticket, United allows one free stopover.) I probably paid incremental airline fees and taxes, but I don’t have the breakdown for the Fredericton portion so let’s just say $25.
  • One night at an airport hotel for an overnight layover was $56.
  • One night at the Delta Fredericton Hotel was $25.
  • A week at the Crowne Plaza Fredericton cost $0 in cash. A PointBreaks hotel at the time, it cost 4,500 IHG points/night (the 5,000 PointBreaks rate minus a 10% rebate from my IHG credit card). I have a six-figure IHG point balance – earned through reimbursed business travel or other low-cost means – so this stay hardly made a dent.

In the on-season, my hotel costs would have been much higher as I doubt the Crowne Plaza would have been offered on PointBreaks.

 

So what’s Fredericton like in the off-season?

In a word: cold.

For those unfamiliar with Fredericton’s location, it is in eastern Canada, above the US state of Maine. So it’s basically like going to Maine in January. Except colder.

This was Fredericton’s town square when I visited:

Officers Square
Officers Square in Fredericton. Cold, eh?

Ideal for ice skating – if that’s what you’re there for.

Alas, I didn’t bring my skates. And everything else there is to do outdoors was severely constrained by weather.

Not that I had a bad time. In fact, it was a nice – if not optimal – trip.

I toured the Beaverbrook Art Gallery when it was otherwise devoid of visitors. While paying the entrance fee, the cashier made small talk and I mentioned I was visiting from California.

A few of the rooms were closed for renovation so he charged me half price, then left me to roam the exhibits. The collection was okay. For a small gallery in a remote-ish part of the world, you can’t expect The Louvre.

As I was about to leave, a staff member approached and said, “They told me you’re visiting from California. I’m sorry some of the rooms are closed to the public but if you like I can take you to see them.”  While I didn’t think much of the collection at that point, I did not want to refuse the gracious offer so I accepted.

Turns out, the non-public rooms held all the gems. There were some stunning paintings and tapestries. This person not only escorted me through them, but took time to explain many of the pieces and the general history of the museum, including how some of its treasured pieces were acquired.

It’s unlikely I would’ve been offered this very detailed tour of the museum’s restricted areas during peak season.

Beaverbrook Art Gallery Sculpture
On the grounds of Beaverbrook Art Gallery

The museum has several famous works, including three Salvador Dali pieces and one by Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund). Of course, with my impeccable timing, all were on tour at the time.

So, as with everything else in life, off-season travel has its pros and cons.

 

Is off-season travel worth it?

On the balance, I’d say yes – in moderation.

At the extremes, it’s not worth it if you can’t at all enjoy the destination’s intrinsic appeal. To point out the obvious:

  • You can’t snow ski in summer when there’s no snow.
  • You can’t go sailing in winter when the water is frozen.
  • I wouldn’t try to hike the Inca Trail, which requires long days of trekking and several nights of camping, during rainy season.

Conversely, other destinations are only mildly inconvenient in the off season. In those cases, I’m willing to go if the cost-benefit analysis is favorable.

I didn’t mind Egypt in the summer. While it was hot, most of what I wanted to do didn’t require extended outdoor exposure or high physical exertion.

I was driven to the Pyramids and other sites in air-conditioned vehicles; I only had to get out and walk around a little once there, and that was tolerable with good sunscreen and proper hydration.

The remainder of the trip was spent gorging myself on gourmet food while sailing the Nile on an air-conditioned luxury boat. Do-able.

Sunboat
Outdoor dining patio on Nile River cruise boat

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

 

April 21 2015

If You Don’t Ask, the Answer is “No”

I suspect this is a true concept in general, but I’ll just relate it to my travel experiences.

Many years ago I took my first grown-up trip – the first international trip without my parents.

In the infancy of my travel life, an eleven-hour flight from Los Angeles to London seemed really, really long. These days I have enough miles and points to “pay” for the comfort of a premium cabin. But at the time – long before my entry into the points and miles game – flying anything other than economy class wasn’t even in my frame of reference.

As it turned out, that flight was overbooked and they asked for volunteers to be bumped onto a later flight. In return, the airline would give monetary compensation (which is common) and an upgrade to first class on the later flight (less common but not unheard of).

I briefly considered volunteering, but the friend I was traveling with and I ultimately decided against it as we had plans on the other end we didn’t want to miss.

However, my friend chatted up the gate agent and jokingly said something to the effect of “we can’t volunteer for the later flight but we’ll happily volunteer to be bumped out of our coach seats into first class on this flight.”

VA Upper Class
Virgin Atlantic first class (or “Upper Class,” as they brand it)

The agent chuckled and left it at that. We returned to our seats and awaited boarding.

Right before boarding, we heard our names over the loudspeaker and were asked to present ourselves at the desk.

At the desk, the same agent asked us to hand over our boarding passes. She then printed us new boarding passes – for first class seats.

We were surprised (flabbergasted would be more accurate) but simply said thank you and booked it to the jetbridge. It was one of those times in life when you don’t ask questions; you just take your loot and run.

I never did find out why we were given the upgrade – a very generous upgrade at that, considering what a long flight it was – and literally cannot think of any reasonable explanation aside from the fact we simply asked. Neither of us had status with the airline; I doubt I even had a frequent flyer account with them at the time.

Now, this happened a loooong time ago. (So long, I don’t even have digital photos from the trip – hence the semi-random filler picture below 🙂 ). I cannot imagine it happening today, when upgrades are processed very procedurally – mostly by a computer, based on frequent flyer status and other non-subjective attributes.

u Liotru
u Liotru in Sicily

Nevertheless, it was an early lesson in the it-never-hurts-to-ask concept.

I don’t know if it’s fear of rejection, or perceived tackiness, or inherent meekness…but I think people oftentimes don’t speak up and ask enough. I suppose I’m the opposite (or have no shame), but I think taking 90 seconds out of my life to (politely and non-tackily) ask for a benefit is a good investment of time.

Even if I get shot down nine of ten times, 9 requests at 90 seconds each equates to losing a few minutes of my life. There is no risk (worst is someone says “no”) and high potential reward (retail price on a first-class flight from Los Angeles to London is several thousand dollars).

This morning I had another reminder.

I had booked a hotel room at a breakfast-inclusive rate. The cost was an incremental $10; easily justified by the convenience of being able to eat onsite before leaving for an early morning meeting.

I ended up running late and did not have time for breakfast. On the way out, I swung by the desk and told the agent I didn’t have opportunity to use my breakfast benefit and asked if I might have a refund.

I expected nothing (it’s not the hotel’s fault I ran late) but hoped for a $10 credit.

The agent tapped a few keys on his computer, saw that I had eaten dinner in the hotel restaurant the night before (evident because I charged it to the room to maximize earning points), and removed the dinner charge (which was much more than $10) from my bill. Well worth the minute out of my life that it took to ask.

Just a few examples of other benefits I commonly receive for the asking:

  • Early check in and late check out
  • Complimentary room upgrades when I have no status
  • Free Internet when it’s normally not free
  • Waived annual fees on credit cards that assess them

Yes, the asking part is kind of an art. But remember, the worst that can happen is someone says they can’t grant your request. (And when that happens, I don’t get upset. I simply thank them for trying and get on with my life.)

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

 

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January 17 2015

Quick Travel Tip: How to Get Free Bottled Water at Hotels

“Don’t drink the tap water” is common advice for travelers visiting foreign countries.

It’s not necessarily a value judgment about the water quality of other countries. Their water may be perfectly potable for locals but unsafe for foreigners whose bodies simply aren’t accustomed to it.

As a practical matter of health and safety, I stick to drinking bottled – or at least filtered – water when traveling.

But it’s a pain having to hunt down bottled water all the time. Water is heavy so you can’t “stock up” while traveling. There may not be a store convenient to where you’re staying. Your hotel may not provide complimentary bottled water in the room. The vending machine only takes coins you don’t have on hand. Et cetera.

So here’s my hack for obtaining free bottled or filtered water at hotels.

If the hotel has a workout room, there’s most likely a water cooler in it. Sometimes it’s the kind that dispenses bottled water from, say, a 5-gallon Arrowhead jug. Other times it’s a machine with a built-in filter.

Either way, it will dispense water the hotel deems safe for its traveling guests.

Here’s the workout room of a hotel I recently stayed at:

Gym

See the water cooler on the far wall? Here’s a close-up:

Water filter

I just took an empty bottle down to the gym and filled it up there.

Bonus tip: pack a foldable water bottle that flattens when empty, consuming less of your precious luggage space.

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

December 21 2014

Quick Travel Tip: Use a Document Scanner App

Often I’ll get random pieces of somewhat-important paper while traveling – a receipt here, a document there.

After a while, it adds up to a pile of paper that I don’t want to (1) lug home, and (2) deal with filing away when I get home.

Even at home I’m paperless as much as possible anyway. Searching for a document that’s electronically filed is easier than trying to remember where I physically put a random piece of paper.

JetScanner Lite App

For scanning documents while on the road, I use the free Jet Scanner Lite mobile app (there is an ad-free paid version as well).

You just take a picture of the document with your phone or tablet. The app you lets make edits, then converts the picture to a PDF or JPG file. From there, you can email the file (to yourself and/or others) or send it directly to a cloud drive.

December 17 2014

Hotel vs. Vacation Apartment Rental – Pros and Cons

Posts from this trip:

Unless I’m visiting family or staying with friends, when I travel hotels are my lodging of choice.

Every choice has its pros and cons, but I’m not a B&B person and I’m too old for hostels (and, truthfully, adept enough at finding deals and earning points that I can stay in nice hotels for less than most people pay for hostels).

However, for my recent two-month stay in Buenos Aires I decided to be brave. After staying in a hotel the first month, I rented a furnished apartment for the second.

All photos in this post are of the actual unit I rented.

Pano

In the end it was an okay experience, but there are definitely differences between hotels and short-term apartment rentals.

 

The case for apartments

Probably the most salient difference is apartments afford more space. Instead of a mere hotel room, most apartments – even small studio units – have at least a kitchenette, a dining area, and distinct living and sleeping areas.

If you’re traveling solo or with just your significant other that might not be a big deal. But when you’re an entire family or a group of friends, you’d normally need multiple hotel rooms to achieve the same level of comfort space-wise. And splitting into multiple rooms might not even be practical with young children.

The unit I rented was a studio in a great location (Recoleta) and priced at $65 on a nightly basis, $395 weekly, or $1,000 monthly. Since I rented for a month my per-night cost worked out to about $33. That’s cheaper than a comparable-quality hotel yet gave me double the amount of space.

Even the $65 nightly rate is still decent, albeit not a significant savings over a hotel of similar caliber. (Hotels in Buenos Aires are not expensive.)

If you like to cook when you travel then the kitchen would be another big plus. Though I only cooked there once (and even that one time was unnecessary), I definitely appreciated the refrigerator and microwave.

Also, apartments usually have a washer and dryer, or at least a common laundry facility. Very convenient if you’re traveling with kids or for a long time.

 

The case for hotels

A common complaint about hotel chains is that properties are large and impersonal. But in my view that’s not all bad.

Having a large property affords economies of scale that allow for certain amenities smaller operations can’t cost-efficiently provide: room service, 24-hour maintenance, on-call housekeeping, etc.

Even though I was only in the Buenos Aires apartment for four weeks, I had several unpleasant incidents. In a hotel they would’ve been minor inconveniences (if not totally benign), but since they occurred in an apartment they were moderate to major headaches.

First, I got locked out of the safe. One day the batteries simply died and the door wouldn’t open (why do they design these things with the battery cage inside the door?).

Safe
The offending safe

Of course with my impeccable timing it happened on the Friday night before a big national holiday on Monday. That meant the maintenance person was off until Tuesday.

Problem was, I did not have enough cash to last until Tuesday. I only carry what I need when I’m out and about, so I only had enough cash on me for a day or two. The rest of my cash and all but one of my credit cards were in the safe. I would not have starved as I had the one credit card, but in Argentina when you pay by credit card things can cost literally 50% more (which is another post for another day).

The rental agency did send someone to try and open the safe on Saturday – actually they sent two different people at two different times. Neither succeeded, and they told me they’d need to locate the person who held the physical key to the box…and they didn’t think they could reach him until Tuesday. I argued vociferously against waiting that long, but in the end they could only do what they could do.

I mean, only one guy has a key? And they can’t reach him for three days? What do they do if the guy gets hit by a bus, or up and quits in a disgruntled manner, or simply misplaces the key?

Or…you know…a renter gets locked out of the safe over a holiday weekend…

Safes can die in hotels too, but in a reputable hotel with on-site maintenance the issue would not have dragged on for days. It likely would have been resolved on the spot.

As is, the incident was a moderate headache. I not only feared running out of cash, but was stuck at the apartment for most of that Saturday awaiting two different people at two different times. I was not about to let random maintenance people access the contents of the safe without me present. (Visitors to Argentina use a lot of cash as, again, it’s not economical to use credit or ATM cards there. Among other valuables, I had a significant amount of cash in the safe.)

But it could have been much worse. If it happened the day before I was scheduled to go home, I would have missed my flight since my passport was in the safe (along with everything else I would not have wanted to leave behind: my phone, tablet, cash, credit cards, and some jewelry). Since it took days for this to resolve, I might have been delayed several days – potentially missing business meetings or other important engagements on the other end.

And it would’ve been excruciating if my laptop had been in the safe (as it normally is when I leave for dinner). It was a fluke that I’d left the laptop out that night. With my phone and tablet already locked up, it would’ve been intolerable having none of my communication devices – not only to stay in touch with friends and family (and the outside world in general), but to deal with the owners and rental agency on the matter.

Bath

Then there is the time the electricity went out…and stayed out for six solid hours. It started in the afternoon (which greatly disrupted my work day) and continued into the evening (when there isn’t natural light to compensate). If I hadn’t had a flashlight on me, it would’ve been unsafe to even leave the apartment. Being on the seventh floor, leaving required navigating as many flights of stairs each way – in darkness as the elevator was out.

It was not the owner’s fault (the blackout was building-wide) but I believe a decent hotel would have (1) worked with greater urgency to fix the problem, (2) provided at least minimal emergency lighting, and/or (3) somehow compensated guests for the inconvenience.

Here are a few other negatives gleaned from this experience. I relay them not to be petty, but to illustrate the point of this post.

  • There was no smoke detector (that I could see) in the apartment. I realize I was not in the US and different countries have different codes, but I believe in a reputable hotel this would not have been absent.
  • There was no dead bolt on the door – something I have never seen a hotel room lack. While the building had seemingly good security, you still want a latch in the unit to prevent getting walked in on – by maintenance or the housekeeper or whatever – when you’re there. Even if they knock first you might not hear the knock if you’re in the shower or otherwise indisposed (which is the worst time to be intruded upon in the first place). In my case this wasn’t a big deal as I just bought a rubber door stop for a few dollars, but (1) a dead bolt would’ve been standard in a hotel, and (2) most people don’t want to spend precious vacation time hunting down a store that sells door stops.
  • The hair dryer died one day and I had to wait until the next day for another. Although this didn’t kill me, in a hotel I would’ve received a replacement in minutes and would not have had to go to bed with damp hair.
  • I am not sure if it was just my particular rental, but they only provided a few days’ worth of toiletries and paper products even though I paid for a month-long stay. Again, this was not a big deal for me in practice (there was a grocery store nearby and I just bought supplies during my grocery runs), but if I were only staying a few days and didn’t plan on grocery shopping I would’ve been annoyed having to spend precious vacation time hunting down basic supplies a hotel would have provided.

Finally, the rental agency required a security deposit equal to two weeks rent. Although I did not consider that unreasonable, it was another negative versus hotels. Hotels may hold your credit card number for damage, but they don’t actually charge you unless there is damage. And even if they did charge your card without a valid case, you could dispute the transaction with your credit card company.

In contrast, I had to pay the apartment rental agency a security deposit in real money upfront – and simply hope they’d return it at the end. Few rental agencies in Buenos Aires accept credit cards, and those that do charge significant fees for the privilege (again, the “blue rate” issue). Most agencies require the deposit by wire transfer, but the one I worked with at least accepted PayPal. While PayPal does offer dispute resolution services, I believe they are not nearly as robust as the consumer protections of a credit card.

If the agency did not refund my security deposit, for whatever reason, I did not see much practical recourse. I mean, I am not going to spend time and resources returning to Argentina to sue them in small claims court (or whatever it’s called there, assuming they even have it) and attempt to present a case in my third language. I doubt it would succeed, and even if it did I’m certain the cost and effort of pursuing the refund would exceed the refund amount itself.

The rental agency I used stated on its website that security deposits are refunded “at checkout.” Well, the person who came to check me out said she knew nothing about security deposits as they’re handled at the main office. Several days after checkout I still had not received my refund and had to e-mail them to request it.

Now, I am anal retentive and had made a note to follow up if my deposit weren’t returned. But not everyone is as obsessive. Many people, on returning from vacation, go right back to work and are immediately swamped trying to catch up on everything that piled up in their absence. I can totally see how someone might lose their deposit because they simply forgot to follow up.

I had a good experience with this rental agency overall, so I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an oversight rather than an intentionally dishonest act. At this writing I am still awaiting my refund, but they assure me it has been processed and should arrive in 48 hours. If it doesn’t, I will update this post. [Update: refund received!]

 

The verdict

None of the “cons” of an apartment was horrible (though the safe box situation had the potential to be). But I did not think the “pros” outweighed them either.

In the final analysis, it comes down to a matter of personal preferences and trip circumstances. For me personally, I’m unlikely to consider an apartment again unless I were staying at least three weeks, or with a big enough group, or could realize significant cost savings. There were just too many annoying inconveniences.

I think problems such as these are not isolated to this particular apartment. Rather, I believe they represent a systematic difference between hotels and apartments. I think that because:

  • I did not rent some dump in the ghetto. It was a nice unit in a modern building with a 24-hour doorman located in one of the most desirable parts of down. Yet it still had all these problems.
  • The rental agency I worked with was good overall (the only issue I ever had with them was the security deposit, as described above). In some cases, I felt they went above and beyond to provide good service. Yet I still ended up with a seemingly-endless string of issues.

 

Tips

I rented this apartment directly from a local rental agency, but I also considered Airbnb (and similar services HomeAway and FlipKey). While Airbnb has other disadvantages, I do like that it doesn’t require an upfront security deposit (like a hotel, it only charges your card if there is damage at checkout). Airbnb also does not release the rent to your host until 24 hours after check-in, whereas through a traditional agency you typically have to pay the full amount directly at check-in.

Remember, when you rent through a traditional agency, the agent does not work for you – it works for the owner. When you book through Airbnb or the like, at least the service is (supposedly) impartial.

Bedroom

Also, unlike a hotel where you can cancel your reservation without penalty (assuming you booked a refundable rate), most apartment rentals require a deposit to hold the unit (which you forfeit if you cancel). In my case the deposit was substantial. I did not intend to cancel, but sometimes life derails your plans. If I had gotten sick or had a family emergency or faced some other situation what prevented the trip, I would have lost the deposit.

My way around that was to add trip cancellation coverage to my travel insurance policy. If my trip were canceled, I could file an insurance claim to recover prepaid lodging expenses. The claim would only be valid if I canceled for a covered reason, but that is better than no coverage at all.

If you are facing the hotel-or-apartment debate, I hope my experience provides a useful data point. If you have questions feel free to leave a comment or shoot me a note!

November 17 2014

How Hotel Housekeeping Really Works

I’ll be first to admit that when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene my standards are excessive. I’m a mysophobe, probably to a pathological degree. (It’s part of my charm.)

I also stay in hotels a lot. And unfortunately I think hotels are gross.

You’re sleeping on pillows that hundreds, possibly thousands, of strangers have put their sweaty, greasy head on night after night. (I’m not saying my head is any less sweaty or greasy; I’m just saying I don’t like sleeping on other people’s sweat and grease.)

If it’s a hotel room with those big heavy comforters, I am certain those things aren’t washed regularly. And don’t get me started about the shower. I have heard (even civilized) people admit to peeing in the shower; it’s one of those things I just have to not think about.

One of my habits when staying in a hotel is to put away all my personal things before leaving the room for the day.

Electronics and other sensitive or valuable items go in the safe – that’s a given. But I don’t even leave my toothbrush out as it would disgust me if housekeeping dropped it in the sink (which thousands of strangers have spat into) and put it back as if nothing happened (so I wouldn’t know to replace it).

When it comes to how hotel housekeeping works, I know I’m better off not knowing.

Unfortunately, I often get to see housekeeping in action.

I’m almost always working when I travel, even when not on a business trip per se. And I often work from the hotel room during the day, so I’m there when housekeeping comes.

Some very common procedures I’ve witnessed:

  • The housekeeper will go straight from cleaning the toilet to making the bed – without washing her hands or changing gloves. (I assume she doesn’t change gloves from one guest room to the next, either.)
  • Pillows are placed on the floor while the bed is made, then picked up and put right back on the bed without a change of pillowcase.
  • The same rag used to clean the bathroom is used to wipe down the desk and nightstand.

And these are just the things they do while I’m there. I try not to imagine how they “clean” the room when it’s vacant.

Well, as it turns out…no imagination is necessary!

A video taken by another traveler, which has gone viral, depicts not just bad hygiene practices, but actual snooping by a housekeeper.

She rummages through the guest’s luggage.

She picks up and tries to use the guest’s tablet.

She also attempts to access the guest’s laptop several times. (How much sensitive personal information resides on laptops and tablets?)

All this while wearing the gloves she cleaned the bathroom with.

Enjoy the video, and remember to lock up your valuables!

 

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September 16 2014

Updated Amex Sync Offers – Save at J. Crew, Walmart, Courtyard Hotels, American Express Travel & More

Maybe I’m just easily amused, but some recent Amex Sync offers got my attention so I thought it was time to share an updated list.

Current travel-related offers include Courtyard Hotels and American Express Travel. Other interesting offers include Whole Foods, Staples, and Walmart.

Walmart Sync Promo 2

The list below includes all current offers I know of (with Twitter hashtags if available).

If you’re unfamiliar with the American Express Sync campaign, it’s a great program. I’ve saved a nice chunk of money, with minimal effort, on things I would normally buy anyway.

Here’s my primer on how to use Amex Sync deals.

Hints

If you don’t plan to spend the required amount in one transaction, buy a gift card to use over time.

If you don’t need anything from the retailer ever, you might still find the offer useful. For example, I don’t need any Staples merchandise but I used that deal to buy money at a discount. You can also buy a variety of third-party gift cards at Staples (including Amazon and Shell Gas).

Like Staples, the Walmart deal is also online only. But Walmart also sells gift cards online (for itself and for other retailers). The terms state “not valid on gift card reloads and prepaid cards,” which to me implies regular gift cards and e-gift cards are okay. I also have no need for Walmart merchandise right now, so I’ll just get an e-gift card and probably use it to buy groceries in store at some point (how often can you get up to 33% off on groceries?).

Current offers

  • 1-800-Flowers – spend $50+ get $15 back (exp. Sep. 30, 2014)
  • Alexis Bittar – spend $300+ get $60 back (exp. Nov. 15, 2014)
  • AllModern.com – spend $250+ get $50 back (exp. Nov. 20, 2014)
  • American Express Travel – 30% off select hotel bookings (book by Oct. 31, complete travel by Nov. 15, 2014)
  • Bandits’ Grill & Bar – spend $50+ get $10 back (exp. Oct. 20, 2014)
  • BareNecessities.com – spend $100+ get $20 back (exp. Sep. 30, 2014) #AmexBareNess
  • Bonobos – spend $150+ get $50 back (exp. Nov. 1, 2014)
  • Brooklyn Industries – spend $75+ get $15 back (exp. Sep. 30, 2014)
  • Carter’s – spend $25+ get $5 back (exp. Oct. 1, 2014, in-store only)
  • Cole Haan – spend $200+ get $50 back (exp. Oct. 2, 2014) #AmexColeHaan
  • The Company Store – spend $300+ get $100 back (exp. Nov. 10, 2014)
  • Courtyard by Marriott – spend $100+ get $20 back (exp. Sep. 30, 2014) #AmexCourtyard
  • Elephant Bar – spend $50+ get $10 back (exp. Sep. 30, 2014)
  • Fig & Olive – spend $100+ get $20 back (exp. Oct. 5, 2014)
  • Four Seasons Restaurant – spend $100+ get $20 back (exp. Nov. 4, 2014)
  • Gelson’s – spend $50+ get $10 back (exp. Sep. 21, 2014)
  • J. Crew – spend $100+ get $20 back (exp. Oct. 5, 2014)
  • JenniferMillerJewelry.com – spend $125+ get $25 back (exp. Oct. 31, 2014)
  • Jetsetter.com – spend $150+ get $30 back (exp. Sep. 30, 2014)
  • Juan Juan Salon – spend $100+ get $20 back (exp. Nov. 27, 2014)
  • Loews Hotels & Resorts – spend $200+ get $50 back (exp. Oct. 29, 2014), possibly available via Facebook only
  • Lucille’s BBQ – spend $50+ get $10 back (exp. Oct. 31, 2014)
  • Marissa Collections – spend $1,000+ get $200 back (exp. Oct. 15, 2014) #AmexMarissa
  • Musashi Restaurant – spend $50+ get $10 back (exp. Oct. 29, 2014)
  • The Palm Restaurant – spend $200+ get $50 back (exp. Nov. 9, 2014)
  • PaperlessPost.com – spend $125+ get $25 back (exp. Dec. 31, 2014)
  • Perfume.com – spend $50+ get $10 back (exp. Oct. 15, 2014)
  • Seasons 52 – spend $50+ get $10 back (exp. Nov. 23, 2014)
  • Staples.com – spend $100+ get $15 back (exp. Sep. 30, 2014)
  • USA Today – spend $150+ get $50 back (Nov. 4, 2014)
  • Vivid Seats – $10 off a purchase of $50+, use promo code AMEX 2014 (exp. Sep. 30, 2014)
  • Walmart.com – spend $15+ get $5 back (exp. Nov. 30, 2014) #AmexWalmart
  • Whole Foods – spend $75+ get $10 back (exp. Sep. 30, 2014) #AmexWholeFoods
  • WSJwine.com – spend $125+ get $50 back (exp. Oct. 12, 2014, use promo code AMEX140850)

If I missed anything please let me know. Enjoy and, as always, be sure to read the terms and conditions of all deals you participate in.

August 21 2014

Travel Tip: Avoid Credit Card Foreign Transaction Fees

Credit Card

Credit cards are a great tool as long as you manage your finances well, don’t pay interest and fees, and can control your spending.

You can earn cash back (or miles or points) for your credit card purchases – which means you’re leaving money on the table when you pay with cash instead (assuming price is the same).

I try not to judge, but I literally cringe to see people pay cash when they could use a credit card instead.

And credit cards come with consumer protections that cash lacks. If your cash is lost or stolen, it’s gone unless you’re lucky and someone returns it. If you lose a credit card, you just call the card issuer to report it. The card is cancelled and you’re not responsible for unauthorized charges.

Whether or not I’m traveling, I avoid carrying a lot of cash. It’s safer and easier; there’s less to lug around and look after.

But this isn’t a sales pitch for credit cards. Rather, it’s a post to help you avoid a potential downside of credit cards.

The problem: foreign transaction fees

Many cards charge a fee when you purchase something in another currency. This often happens while traveling abroad, but can also happen when you’re using the card in your home country but buying from a foreign merchant.

The fee varies from card to card, but I have seen it as high as 3%. That may seem a small number, but it adds up if you travel frequently. And why pay it at all if it’s avoidable?

The solution: pay with a card that does not have foreign transaction fees

To determine if a card has these fees you can simply call the number on the back of the card and ask. Alternatively, look in the fee disclosure (usually labeled something like “pricing and terms” on the card issuer’s website).

Below is a random example, with the subject fee (3% in this case) boxed in blue:

Citi Fee Disclosure
Click to enlarge

There are plenty of cards that charge 0%, and those are the ones I use when traveling.

By the way, using cash to avoid this fee is usually not an ideal solution. You’d still have to buy the foreign cash – at a price. That price might be charged separately or it might be built into the exchange rate, but either way you are paying to convert currency. As an individual you have less negotiating power than a credit card issuer (usually a bank) so you’ll get an even worse exchange rate than you would using a credit card.

August 18 2014

Travel Wardrobe Planning with Instagram

I’ve been thinking about what clothes to pack for an upcoming trip to a new destination (I’m a girl, okay?).

I’m not a fashionista by any means, but I do try to “clean up” when I leave the house.

Practically speaking, I’d like to pack clothes appropriate to the weather I’ll encounter.

Culturally, I try to respect the local standards of attire. I’ll still stand out as an outsider (that’s unavoidable), but I figure the less I stick out the better – for safety and other reasons. That’s particularly true in certain parts of the world where immodest attire can lead to worse consequences than just unwanted stares.

Monaco Dress Code
What NOT to wear, according to this sign in Monaco

So…how to find up-to-date information on what people wear in a particular city?

I came across a genius suggestion on the TripAdvisor forum.

For real-time, on-the-ground “intell” on what people wear, someone suggested browsing Instagram under the hashtag for your destination.

For example, if traveling to Copenhagen, search the tag #copenhagen and you instantly get an up-to-the-minute feed of photos labeled as such.

Clever, no?

Category: Tips | LEAVE A COMMENT
August 9 2014

International Phone Calls and How to Save 30% on Skype

I find Skype a great tool in general, but it has been even more useful lately as I’m planning a lengthy international trip.

When at home I use it to call international phone numbers if using my cell phone would be cost ineffective, and when traveling I use it to stay in touch with home.

You can do a lot for free on Skype, but some services are not free. For those, here are a few money-saving options currently available.

For 30% off

Purchase Skype credit from TigerDirect while combining the following offers:

  • A $15 off $100 coupon from the merchant. To my knowledge there are two coupons currently available – one expires August 10 and can be generated here; the other expires September 30 and can be generated here.
  • The Amex Sync offer giving a $15 statement credit when you spend $50+ at TigerDirect. The offer, mentioned in this post, expires August 31. (I don’t believe this offer is on Twitter or Facebook so it would only be available to those who have it in the “Offers For You” tab on their Amex account.)

Your net cost should be $70 for $100 worth of Skype credit.

TigerDirect GC Order
Cost of $100 in Skype credit BEFORE Amex Sync rebate. (Click to enlarge.)

For 10% off

Another Amex Sync deal offers $25 off a $250+ purchase at Best Buy (discussed here) through September 2. Best Buy sells Skype gift cards.

$250 is a lot of Skype credit (more than I’d personally buy at one time) but you can always buy a lesser amount and make up the difference by purchasing other items at Best Buy (*cough* Amazon gift cards *cough*).

I don’t know of any at the moment, but if you find a discount offered by the retailer that works on Skype gift cards, it should combine as well.

Not Skype, but another option worth a look

I have not researched this product, but currently Amazon has a OneSimCard (with $10 of credit) for $40.52.

OneSimCard
Click to enlarge

On the surface this is not a deal because you can get the same thing for $39.95 directly from OneSimCard.com ($29.95 for the card and $10.00 for the airtime credit).

To make it a deal, use the Amex Sync offer for a $10 statement credit when you spend $50+ at JCPenney (blog post), which sells Amazon gift cards in store. It’s a two-step process because you have to go to JCPenney and buy an Amazon gift card, then use the gift card to buy the SIM card. Personally I wouldn’t make a special trip to JCP, but I’d certainly drop in when the store is on my way anyway.

Remember that Amazon prices can change any time so be sure to double check your cart before paying.

Enjoy the remaining weekend. I know many of us bought the Europe/Asia mistake fare a few months ago and are now busy planning for those trips, so I hope this is useful.

Category: Amex, Deals, Tips | LEAVE A COMMENT