Category Archives: travel

Using Cashback Rewards for Travel

I can't believe I never thought of this---you don't have to use "travel" rewards to get free travel. You can use cashback rewards instead!

I’ve been doing a good bit of traveling this year. My itinerary includes a litany of states and at least two foreign countries.

But I kind of hate spending money.

That means I’ve been doing a good bit of signing up for credit card bonuses to offset the costs. It’s funny—if you do a lot of this over a one-year period, you start to run out of well-known cards to apply for.

Not too long ago, I had hit up all of the big, flexible bonuses that you can use as a credit statement against travel costs. I may apply for these cards again in the future, but I don’t like to take too much advantage and there wasn’t enough time to “churn,” anyways.

So I started looking at alternatives. I started looking at cards with smaller bonus rewards—but also lower spending limits. That was a total win.

Then I got to thinking that I should probably look at straight cashback cards, too. If all I was getting was a statement credit, the cash rewards would still allow me to pay for travel. In fact, if I wanted it to pay for something else, like a park ticket, that wouldn’t normally be counted as a travel expense, I totally could with a cash rewards card.

So I got to looking.

Thinking about using credit cards for rewards? Stop now and read this first!

Using Cash Rewards Cards for Travel

I liked what I found. There are a lot of options out there with decent rewards and relatively low minimum spends. That’s good for people like me who have started to max out the options with heavy-hitting bonuses due to wanting so much free stuff. By the way, yes, I have a great credit score.

But it’s also good for people who don’t have as much income and therefore can’t afford to take on $3,000 spends over the course of 60 or 90 days.

Let’s look at how this works:

PenFed just came out with the brand spankin’ new Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature® Card. With it, you earn 1.5 cents back for every dollar you spend on purchases—regardless of where you spend it.

That alone is a big deal as a lot of cash back cards offer rotating categories. They often reward you with a high point value within a certain category, but lower points on everything else. The kicker is that those categories tend to change every quarter, and you typically have to manually register or call in if you want the inflated bonus.

A lot to keep on top of. It makes 1.5 cents per dollar back every single time you spend pretty attractive.

On top of that 1.5% back, this card also currently offers a $100 bonus when you spend $1,500 on it within 90 days of opening your account. By the time you’ve spent enough to earn the incentive, you’ll receive $122.50 total. One hundred for the bonus and $22.50 per the 1.5% cash back.

This statement credit can negate any purchase on the card—including park tickets!

Earn More by Becoming a Member

With this particular card, there’s a further incentive if you want to earn even more cash back on every purchase. If you have either a military affiliation or a PenFed Access America Checking Account—which is a fabulous idea anyways and can easily be attained without military service—your cash back rate will jump up to 2%.

That means by the time you reached the minimum spend for the bonus, you’d have $130 total instead of $122.50.

It also means that if you spend an average of $500 per month on your card, your cash back rewards will add up to $120/year rather than the $90/year that you’d receive at the 1.5% rate.

How Cash Back Rewards are Helping Me

I’m pretty sure we’re going to get next-to-free park tickets thanks to using this method. I’m glad I didn’t just throw my hands up in the air and declare there were no other options left.

I also love that while cash back cards can help the travelers out there, they can help add value to people’s lives even if they have financial priorities that don’t include hopping on a plane.

But they only add value if you use them correctly. Please remember to charge responsibly.

*This post is in collaboration with PenFed Credit Union.*

Frugal Time Travel: Make Genealogy Come to Life

This is so cool. Inspired me to plan a frugal trip to help make my own genealogy come to life.

Back in my day, we didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have access to a world of information at our fingertips. If we wanted to learn more about a topic, we had to get familiar with the Dewey decimal system. If we wanted to learn a new language, we had to hire a tutor or take a course in school.

If we wanted to look over historical records, documents weren’t scanned into a database which we could access through our handheld computers. We had to either hit up LDS microfiche, or head to the actual historical site to view the tangible documents.

So that’s what we did. I grew up the millennial child of a baby boomer history major who had a deep interest in genealogy. Instead of weekend trips to nearby amusement parks or campsites, we’d take trips to cemeteries and historical societies.

My sibling and I would play in the kids’ room at the library while my mom flipped through baptismal records from the Catholic church. At one point, we got so bored at a cemetery where we couldn’t find our ancestors that we started digging up a sparkly rock for our collection. It turned out to be a headstone that had been grown over by grass. The headstone of one of our ancestors.

I’ve since learned that overgrown headstones, while devastating when discovered by descendants, aren’t uncommon. There’s a Civil War-era section of the Allegheny Cemetery that is constantly growing over, no matter how many times my husband and I go back to literally uncover his own ancestors.

The Boy in Athens

We recently took a nice, long trip to Florida. Parts of it were frugal, while others were decidedly not. I’ll get more into that aspect of it over the next week or so.

We drove, which meant we would be passing through Georgia. It’s not a state we visit often—even if we’re only talking rest stop bathrooms.

I was reminded of a story of a family member. He was a Spanish American War soldier mustered in Athens. The night before they were supposed to deploy, everyone got nice and drunk. Unsurprisingly, a fight broke out. My great-great-times-however-many-greats uncle jumped in to break it up.

There was another soldier who used a different strategy to meet the same end. His way of breaking up the cacophony was to shoot into the crowd. I’m pretty sure he was drunk, too. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for his logic.

The bullet ended up hitting my uncle. He died within 24 hours.

He was 19 years old.

The shooter was more than remorseful. The incident followed him the rest of his life. As far as I can tell, there was no hatred expressed or grudges held.

But a 19-year-old boy still died unnecessarily, before even seeing the war he had volunteered to help fight.

Hold on While I Get Woo-Woo

A lot of times, when we research our family tree, we think only of our direct ancestors. My mother was more inclusive than that, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. While he still lived on in family lore, she uncovered details about his life and death that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

If someone has no kids, there are no direct descendants. The likelihood of their life being remembered erodes with time.

I’m not a religious person. But I do believe that some part of our soul actively lives on as long as we are remembered. As long as our stories are not forgotten. The stories that lie dormant don’t hold dead souls, necessarily—without each and every human story, our planet would not look the way it does today.

A 19-year-old boy got shot, and a butterfly fluttered its wings.

But when we do remember, we pay honor to the people who came before us. We affirm that their lives are worth not forgetting. Whether they procreated or not.

Carrying on a Genealogical Tradition

Athens was at my attention, but I had no idea where it was. Because I now have access to one of those fancy, handheld computers, I pulled up Google instead of a physical map. It was right in the middle of the state, and altering our route to stay there the night over Charlotte would only prolong our trip by one hour.

I still wasn’t sure. There was only a plaque by City Hall to commemorate the collective force that spent time in Athens. The historical society was closed the two days we’d be there. And I’d have to switch hotels.

It nagged at me, though. So I did a little more digging. The camp where my uncle died was now a massive intersection. Well, massive in an incredibly suburban way.

Intersection in Athens, Georgia

I pulled up the intersection’s street view, and lo and behold, there was a hotel at one of its four corners. I called them up, unsure if they’d be more affordable than what I’d already booked. They were literally the exact same price. It was meant to be.

On our way home, we stopped in Athens. The hotel was insanely beautiful for a chain of its price range. There was a Zaxby’s across the street—which used to be my guilty pleasure when I lived in the South. There were Pokestops everywhere for the kids. The situation was ideal.

But it was also the place where that 19-year-old boy had died trying to do the right thing. He didn’t sit by and wait for someone else to step up. He saw something awry and acted. And at this busy intersection, he lost his life.

We took some time to remember him. To imagine what the place would have looked like when he was stationed there. To pay honor to his memory.

And it didn’t cost a cent more to do it.

Revealing Your Family’s Stories

It’s one thing to read a name off a census record. It’s a totally different experience to go and visit your own family’s historical sites.

But in order to find out where they are, you have to do a little research first. Today you don’t have to flip through physical papers trying to read old cursive from an era when spelling wasn’t standardized. #RealLifeGenealogyProblems

Instead, you can do a quick search of pre-indexed records on your phone.

My favorite database to do this is Ancestry. Their records are extensive and well worth the membership price, but if you want to give it a whirl before you commit, get a free 14-day trial.

I do have other branches of my family where stories are extremely difficult to uncover. War, multiple emigrations and unfortunate accidents have destroyed records and separated us from our history. But we did take the AncestryDNA test, which showed us a ton of surprising data about where our family came from.

In cases where you can’t get records, this is a nice way to be able to plan a trip to the places your family once lived. While you’re there, you might even be able to uncover more about their stories.

Right now through Father’s Day, AncestryDNA is 20% off.

Have you ever traveled to pay respects to your family or learn more about their history? Would love to hear your stories in the comments!

New York City for Under $100 Per Day

I guess a trip to New York City really is possible on a frugal budget! Love the tips she used to do it for under $100/day--including her hotel!

This past month I took a super frugal trip to New York. I was in town for a conference, and was initially a little worried about the budget. But it turns out, even in one of the most expensive cities on Earth, there are always affordable ways to travel.

Accommodations- $181

The first thing I looked at when I was deciding if this sojourn was even going to be possible was accommodations. The conference was happening at a hotel in Times Square, and even the discounted conference rate was oppressive.

I decided to turn to Airbnb. It’s an option I’ve been reluctant to use in the past. Sleeping in a stranger’s house seemed, well, scary. But when we went to Canada we tried it out for the first time and had a stellar experience. Stellar as in these were the views from the private apartment we rented:

This is why we used Airbnb in Calgary.

I’ve learned from personal experience and from watching others use the platform that reading reviews is critical. You want a place with lots of reviews to scroll through, and you want the vast majority of those reviews to be glowing. I applied this same method to NYC and found a place in the heart of Times Square for a grand total of $181– for three nights.

The place I stayed was set up similar to a hostel. Initially, I had planned to keep to myself and get a lot of work done. But as soon as I got there, I was bombarded with invitations to go grab some food, check out nightlife or just chat.

I took the offers I could within the conference schedule, and I’m so glad I did. I made new friends, learned amazing stories from new acquaintances, and saw far more of the area than I would have if left to my own devices. It felt like going away to summer camp, except your bunk mates were these amazing women from around the world.

I highly endorse Airbnb for budget travel. It’s saved me a ton of money over a hotel multiple times, and, after carefully reading the reviews, has felt incredibly safe and led to amazing experiences I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t rented space from a local. If you want to try it out, too, you can get a $40 travel credit by signing up here.

Transit- $81.00

I found a Megabus ticket from Pittsburgh to NYC for $72 roundtrip. That included reserving seats, which was an optional add-on. (My favorite was on the top in the front of the bus.)

It was my first time using them. Wifi was spotty, which I expected. It was nonexistent on my way in, but on my way home I was able to knock a lot of work out. I had heard the buses were “dirty,” but I didn’t have that experience. Maybe I’m just too used to PAT buses, which can be pretty gross sometimes. Everything’s relative.

While in New York, I bought three subway tickets. I had a really easy time using it on the way in, and spent $3 on a one-time pass. But I got confused while heading to catch the Megabus out, so I ended up having to buy two one-time tickets for a total of $6.

Food- $84.00

I had some amazing eats while in the city. One day while I was in town, the conference provided free lunch and breakfast. Another day, my mom’s cousin was generous enough to treat me to lunch at Thalia. It was the first time each of us were trying the restaurant, and it was amazing.

With friends from the Airbnb, I tried some Indian, and old-school diner and an Irish pub. One night we grabbed a drink at Hard Rock, too.

Grand total: $84.00

The Conference: THINK17

My friends at CO-OP invited me to check out their annual conference: THINK17. I wasn’t able to stay for the entire thing because of prior obligations that week, but I’m so glad I made it for the two days I did. It was the most interesting and dynamic conference I’ve ever been to.

We listened to speakers who challenged the norm, spoke with credit union reps who were completely dedicated to making their members’ experiences beyond spectacular, and got to hear from some of the winners of their THINK17 prize, which invited innovation in the digital financial experience for those 50+.

Inspirational youth who won the THINK Prize 2017.

Aside from the awesome financial nerd discussions and inspirational speakers, we also were privy to some top notch entertainment, including a sampler of Hamilton during opening:

Fun times seeing a Hamilton Sampler in NYC.

And a Cirque-esque performance at our first night’s party:

Entertainment: $0

I didn’t spend a lot going to shows or anything of the like while I was in NYC. I found that walking around in the evening brought enough free entertainment that I didn’t have to pay for it. Just walking around Times Square my Airbnb friends and I were able to see some great performances, including a talented break dancing troupe.

The above video is in 360. Best viewed through your VR headset, but you can also look around by clicking and dragging to change your perspective with your mouse.

I did learn, however, that if you want to go see a show, you can purchase any leftover tickets at the TKTS booth in the middle of Times Square. You have to be flexible in what you’re willing to see, but you’ll score a great deal.

New York City on a Budget

If doing NYC for four days under $350 is possible, you can do anywhere on a budget of less than $100/day. I wouldn’t trade my frugal experiences for the world—whether we’re talking about the new friends I made or the new ideas and experiences I have in my tool belt for work.

What destinations have you done for cheap? Share your story in the comments! 

 

Why Study Abroad is More Than a Vacation

Definitely want to make sure my daughter does her study abroad term right so she can reap these career benefits.

By Lauren Davidson, a freelance writer specializing in personal finance

Students are constantly offered chances to sign up for study abroad experiences. In fact, these days many colleges allow students from other schools to sign up for their study abroad trips, with pre-approved credit transfers to their own school. This has increased the availability of locations and programs for students to choose from when deciding on a study abroad trip.

Common concern for students include price, amount of financial aid available, and whether study abroad trips are valuable investments in their futures or just glorified vacation plans. After all, studying abroad is by no means cheap. Most trips range from around $2,000 to $7,000 depending on where you go. This is a sizeable amount of money, requiring you to find additional funding. I recommend trying to find some specific study abroad grants or scholarships before turning to student loans to pay for your trip.

Although it’s true that there are some programs that put more emphasis on the “fun” than on the “fundamentals,” most study abroad programs are serious about putting students to work to earn their credits, all while simultaneously providing them with an enjoyable cross-cultural experience.

From a student’s perspective, it’s important to find the right program which will provide both an enjoyable time and a learning experience. Booking the right types of programs will add luster to your resume in today’s increasingly global economy by adding skills and experiences that employers value.

Use study abroad as a chance to learn or improve upon your second language skills.

England is a popular study abroad destination in part because visiting and studying in a country where the citizens don’t speak English as a first language is daunting to many American students. However, this means a lost chance to learn or improve in a second (or third!) language. The longer your study abroad program runs, the more benefit you will get from immersing yourself into a foreign language.

To get the full immersion experience, request to be placed with a host family instead of a dorm room, if possible. Living alongside natural speakers will aid you in increasing fluency. If you have some sufficiency in a second language, even if you took classes back in high school, this is an excellent opportunity to beef up your conversational skills.

Listing on your resume that you took Mandarin in high school isn’t likely to lift the eyebrows of employers, but if you combine that with a half-summer in China then your claim of fluency just became much more impressive. For students who have not taken classes in a foreign language, it is still very much worth considering a program in a non-English speaking country.

It’s been proven that the fastest way to learn a new language is full immersion. Even slight conversational skills in a foreign language can be a very valuable skill set when job hunting. Employers are much more likely to take into consideration your knowledge of a foreign language if you have actually spent significant time in the country.

Choosing research programs abroad can expose you to new learning methodologies.

No matter the country or program that you choose, taking part in research programs abroad are an excellent chance to learn methods that aren’t being employed in your home university, or even in the United States. There are dozens of study abroad programs that give American students the chance to engage in research alongside students in the program country and this unparalleled chance to engage in cross-cultural research projects is viewed in high esteem by potential employers. These experiences can highlight a student’s ability to work across cultural boundaries, as well, which is another attribute that employers consistently rate highly.

Studying abroad makes students appear well-rounded to employers.

Studying abroad is a chance for students to step outside of their comfort zone, no matter what they choose to study or where they choose to go. Those that travel or live in another country are often viewed as more well-rounded than those that have never left the U.S. because of the diversity of experiences that traveling brings.

While it’s important to remember that study abroad trips are not simply an excuse to go on an extended vacation—most programs represent research opportunities and have significant credit hours included—simply the fact that someone has spent significant time in another country can put their resume to the top of the list.

Of course, this benefit is somewhat dependent upon the type of job. For example, many large U.S. law firms have foreign departments, especially in Asia. For a student hoping to one day live and work in another country after graduation, prior experience abroad can help them to land the job of their dreams.

Top 4 Reasons You May Need a Travel Credit Card

Huh. I didn't know credit cards were so much more secure for travel.

Using a credit card is a convenient and reliable means of payment if you’d like to travel overseas. You can book hotel rooms, buy tickets, rent a car, and pay in restaurants and stores.

In addition, if you take a credit card on your journeys you do not need to worry about:

  • Declaring cash at customs. There is no need to report the line of credit in your pocket when you travel with a credit card.
  • Safer than carrying cash. If your cash is stolen and you don’t have another form of payment on you, you’ll be stuck with no access to money for the rest of your trip. Cash has no protections, while credit cards do provide liability protections.
  • The safety of your funds. If the card is lost or stolen, it will be frozen when you report it. Liability measures provide much stronger protection for credit cards versus debit cards.

You need to pay attention to the best points credit cards for travelers if you want to select the most appropriate one.

Everything you need to know to get the maximum benefit from using a credit card

When traveling, remember that not all cards are accepted everywhere. Note that some European countries accept only “chip” cards, which provide the highest level of payment security. Make sure you know your accompanying PIN. Many American retailers only require a signature, so you might not be familiar. and that within Europe, some brands aren’t accepted at all. Such cards provide the highest level of payment security.

It’s also wise to carry an additional credit card in case you lose your main card, or in case it the issuer freezes it, mistakenly thinking your travels abroad are an indication of fraud. It’s convenient to carry cards of two payment systems (e.g. MasterCard Gold as the main, Visa Classic as additional). Moreover, Gold and Platinum class cards provide medical insurance for traveling abroad. Be sure to check your card’s policy before disembarking.

To avoid additional costs associated with currency conversion, it would be better for you to open an account in euros or US dollars depending on the region you are going to visit.

How to protect yourself from fraudulent transactions

To protect yourself from fraudulent transactions, take advantage of any SMS service your card issuer may provide. It will allow you to get all the information about the transactions associated with your account in real time.

If you become a victim of fraud, and realize it in real time, call your financial institution right away. If you don’t realize it until you read your statement, call them as soon as you are aware. You should follow up by writing a letter to your financial institution. You will be asked to specify the date of the suspicious transaction, the number in the system of payment as well as the code of the terminal. All this data can be found in your SMS or card statement. The financial institution will in turn consider all of this information, investigate, and determine the way of compensation.

There’s much more to learn about protection from credit card fraud. The FTC goes into greater detail here.

Other useful tips

Before going on a trip, find out whether the use of credit cards is widespread in your destination country. Countries like Finland are paradise for tourists in this regard. Even in a small town you can pay for a purchase using a credit card.

However, in some countries it is much more convenient to pay in cash. For example, it will be difficult to impossible to use a credit card in rural Egypt. In the Czech Republic, cards are accepted in large shopping malls and hotels. However, in small cafes and restaurants it would be better to pay in cash.

 

This article is brought to you and contributed by George Wolfson.

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