Travel Blog

Posted in Beach, Camping, Health, Outdoors, Travel

Advising on best mosquito repellent for outdoor lovers

The best mosquito repellent includes enough active ingredient to repel mosquitoes for multiple hours.  The key term is “active ingredient” — only a small number of ingredients are recommended.  DEET is the most thoroughly researched and widely available — and the most commonly recommended by experts.  But picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus are good alternatives if you have sensitive skin or want a natural pick.

If you just want a general-use mosquito repellent that provides a full day of protection, choose something from the Off! Deep Woods line.  Off! is a known-and-trusted brand in the insect repellent world, and its Deep Woods repellents come in aerosols, pump sprays, and towelettes.  The Deep Woods line contains 25 percent DEET, which provides up to eight hours of coverage.  And unlike some DEET formulas, the Deep Woods line didn’t irritate your skin at all.

If you have kids, or if you’re looking for just enough repellent to cover an afternoon picnic, we recommend Repel Family Dry Insect Repellent.  This 10 percent DEET repellent is designed to be safe for children, but its non-greasy, unscented spray will also be attractive to adults who are only looking for about four hours of mosquito protection.

For those with especially sensitive skin, try Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Spray. Picaridin less likely to be a skin irritant than DEET, and testers barely noticed the repellent was on their skin once it dried. Sawyer contains 20 percent picaridin and comes in an aerosol spray.  If you like the sound of picaridin but want a different method of application, you can also try Natrapel 8 Hour Insect Repellent Wipes.

For those who want an all-natural, plant-based ingredient, Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent and Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent are two pump spray repellents that performed identically during testing.  They’ll make you smell like you’ve been dipped in lemon eucalyptus (an herbal, menthol-tinged scent), but they should keep the bugs at bay for six or seven hours.

Active Ingredient

Concentration

Hours of Protection

DEET

5-10%

2-4 hours

DEET

15%

6 hours

DEET

25-30%

Up to 8 hours

Picaridin

20%

Up to 8 hours

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus

30%

6-7 hours

Sort of. As your DEET percentage increases, you get diminishing returns: 30 percent DEET provides coverage for up to eight hours, while 98 percent covers for 10-12. But if you’re outdoors and sweating, you’ll probably have to reapply your repellent before the 10-hour mark anyway. In other words, you’re exposing yourself to a much higher dose of chemicals for very little extra protection. None of our sources or experts recommended it.

Did You Know?

Avoid mosquito repellents that contain sunscreen.

Yes, you want to protect your skin from both mosquitoes and harmful UV rays. But sunscreen protection usually wears off before mosquito repellent does. If you only apply the product once over an eight-hour span, you risk getting sunburned. But if you reapply every few hours — especially if you’re using a DEET-based product — you run the risk of overexposure to your repellent.

Apply your sunscreen and makeup first, and then spray or rub on your insect repellant, you can still reapply sunscreen throughout the day, over the repellant.

Remember to replace your repellent regularly.

The active ingredient in mosquito repellent won’t expire, but the inactive ingredients — like the fragrance components — will.  You can expect your mosquito repellent to last for about three years, and explained how to tell if it’s gone bad: If you spray it into the air and it smells wrong, throw it out. If you have a cream or gel formulation, and it has changed color or separated (yellow, brown, oily, watery) or the texture is off, throw it out. If the bottle is rusted over, throw it out.

A reputable active ingredient should be effective across the globe.

Many mosquito repellents will advertise protection against Zika or West Nile virus on their packaging, but any repellent that uses a CDC-recommended active ingredient should be effective on the majority of mosquitoes, regardless of strain or location.

You will want to up your active ingredient percentage if you’re traveling to a high-risk area, though. If you are going to a tropical location, it is recommended to use at least a 20 percent product.  A 15 percent concentration can put you at risk for mosquito bites, in turn putting you at risk for diseases like malaria, dengue fever and Zika virus.

Repellents can be harsh on some specialty fabrics.

You aren’t supposed to apply topical mosquito repellent to clothing (just skin), but bug sprays are unlikely to damage common fabrics, like denim, cotton, or nylon. Mosquito repellent users sometimes complain about damage to Lycra and Gore-Tex, however — fabrics that can show up in athleisure and hiking gear.

If you’re worried about ruining expensive fabrics, try a wipe rather than a spray. This makes it a little easier to control your application. And unless you really need it, consider leaving the Spandex at home. Looser garments are best; mosquitos will bite right through spandex yoga pants.

Avoid attracting mosquitoes to your home.

Don’t make your backyard a mosquito haven. Removing standing water from property is one of the most important actions people can take, as it eliminates breeding sites of mosquitoes. Mosquito Squad suggests eliminating yard trash (think twigs, leaves, grass clippings) because they also make popular mosquito breeding areas. She advises homeowners to clean out their gutters; make sure downspouts are aligned properly; and position items like tarps, trash cans, or children’s toys so they don’t collect standing water.

The Best Mosquito Repellents: Summed-Up

Mosquito Repellent Best For…
Off! Deep Woods Insect Repellent V Aerosol DEET Spray
Off! Deep Woods Insect Repellent VII Pump Top DEET Spray
Off! Deep Woods Towelettes DEET Wipes
Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent Spray Picaridin Spray
Natrapel 8 Hour Insect Repellent Wipes Picaridin Wipes
Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus Spray
Credit: Reviews.com
Image: Mosquitonoband.com
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Posted in Health, Wellness

How to find a MEDICAL massage therapist/Recommendation in Virginia

You can get massages on any corner, any therapist can help you relax and relieve stress but if you have a condition please consider a medical massage therapist.  Muscle manipulation is not to fool with, pressing the wrong trigger points and soft tissues can worsen your condition which you are trying to fix.  A deep tissue massage is not about “raping the muscle” and beating you up; it is about letting the therapist open or stretch the muscles and realign them. I do want to warn you though: medical massages are not the most pleasant massages but they surely work!

Have you seen injured clients coming out of cheap massage places, Asian massage parlors, especially places using Groupon?   I have! Cheap places are only good when you don’t have a condition but once you hurt yourself please get a real therapist who focuses on anatomy more than massage oil.  In my humble opinion, you are better off by not doing anything about your condition than letting a non expert “work” on you.

How can you tell your massage therapist is medical or not? Very easy:

  1. Medical massage therapists read and understand x-rays and medical records if given to them.
  2. They should be able to work together with your chiropractor and physical therapist.
  3. Medical massage heals by improving the range of motion and reducing pain. It will certainly require a few sessions but once you are done  the therapist don’t have to see you again.  If you are told to keep on returning on a regular base and you only feel relieved temporarily, you are not seeing the right therapist.  You only should be a regular for relaxation type of massages but never medical!
  4. Test their anatomy knowledge by asking a random question on anatomy and physiology or just show them your X-Ray.  Those who took 2-3 day “medical” massage therapy side courses will not know the answer!
  5. Just because a therapist has a NPI number (National Provider Identification number for insurance claims or reimbursements) they are still required to perform tests and assessments, do a chart on you, document your improvements and correspond with the insurance agencies who often audit wellness centers and med spas.  You, as a patient have the right to ask for your medical records even if you don’t file an insurance claim or reimbursement.  Only a medical massage therapist is capable of performing tests and evaluating results, additionally they have a good understanding of anatomy to draw charts.

Now, as you can see, a medical massage therapist means more than just a person taking a 6 month massage therapy course; they have a medical background as well.  There is a shortage of medical massage therapists in Virginia so I’m letting a secret out today.  You are welcome, you can thank me later 🙂

Here is Laz, an experienced therapist with a great reputation from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., from Alexandria to Richmond, Virginia. People drive 2 hours to see him and call him “God” because he “fixes up” patients, rehabilitates them after injuries and accidents and improves the performance of athletes. He worked in a chiropractor’s office for 5 years where he treated over 1,000 patients a year with disc herniation, frozen shoulder, thoracic outlet syndrome, whiplash accident injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome lateral/medial epicondylitis and many more.  He is also experienced in deep tissue, sport, Swedish massages, myofascial manipulation and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation.

He studied anatomy, physiology and kinesiology for 5 years and has done his final case study on sciatic pain management and lumbar disc herniation.  In addition to that he was an instructor of medical massage practical application, anatomy, pathology and patient assessment in Columbia College.

You can book him online at https://www.fthuntmassageandspa.com/laszlo-balazs or call Ft Hunt Massage and Spa at 703-765-7275 and ask for Laz!

Packages and gift certificates are available, military discount and occasional promotions are offered.

Namaste!

Image: ttps://i.ytimg.com

 

Posted in Europe, Hotel, Travel

Staying in boutique hotels versus chain hotels in Europe

First let me disclose that I am European so I am biased but I will try my very best to stay neutral in this topic as much as I can.

I hear it from American travelers all the time that boutique hotels in Europe don’t have elevators and air conditioning and now I just added a new concern to this list, according to American travel agents boutique hotels cannot accommodate large groups.

First, I would need to know what a large group is but there is more than one boutique hotel in every town; it takes no time to google their locations and drop off groups of tourists in multiple places, a short walking distance away.  I know it takes more work to coordinate it but no big deal (for me at least).

I always say there are two kinds of travelers: the one who travels in style and the one who travels on a budget.  If chain hotels are your only options due to comfort you will never get out of a city and discover a national park, tour a jungle, get close to a volcano, take a safari, track gorillas or polar bears, climb a mountain, stay in a castle and the list goes on.

On air conditioning: you only need air conditioning in the summer months but we are not talking about developing, third world countries here.  In Europe you don’t need AC everywhere, like in Scandinavian countries or high elevation of a mountain.  Also, please note that European houses are made of bricks or stones and since most homes have a concrete foundation their insulation is so much better than the American homes.  That being said European houses can stay cooler in the summer months and warmer in the winter.

Finding air conditioned hotel rooms in Europe is not hard at all, you just need to read the list of amenities the same way you check if there is breakfast or wifi at the property.  Keep in mind that our boutique hotels are not centrally air conditioned; we love the European Ductless System (EDS) where a small unit is placed on the wall in each room, operated by a remote control.  This is very energy efficient, easy and cheap to maintain and the best of all, it is healthier than the American system since you don’t breathe in dust and bacteria, safe for people with different allergies and sensitivities.  I moved to the USA 20+ years ago but I still catch a cold in the summer months just by walking in and out of heavily air conditioned places (house, car, work, offices, stores, etc) so I ended up installing an EDS at my lodge in the Virginian mountains.

I was in Algarve, Portugal where temperatures were around 85F but it did not feel that high due to the sea breeze; we just opened our windows and used ceiling fans. I kind of like it better, still remember how the sheer drapes were dancing in the breeze in our living room; way better than sitting in freezing temperatures looking at the beach.

Another example: I went to the southern region of Turkey and stayed in a cave hotel in Cappadokia. Cave hotels are carved into a mountain or are underground. I guarantee you won’t need AC here either!!  For the record you are not going to find a chain hotel in this region, furthermore, if you don’t book your cave hotel early, it will get sold out in no time since these hotels don’t have many rooms.

About elevators: Yes, most boutique hotels don’t have elevators so please read the property amenities.  Our buildings are small and old but these hotels are not skyscrapers. Europeans don’t mind taking stairs but most hotels have porters who are glad to take your luggage up to the 4th floor for a couple of Euros (you tip porters in chain hotels too, at least I hope you do); anyway, boutique hotels do not get taller than that.

If you are staying in a medieval town you may not be allowed to drive into historic downtown  (these are designated pedestrian zones) so you will need to park your car elsewhere and walk to your hotel while dragging your luggage with you on cobblestone streets.  That is not the end of the world, your luggage suffers a bigger damage just by being thrown around by airline baggage handles.  Walking in Europe is fun and is “part of the package” in case I am telling you something new today.  Walking anywhere is a must; you can’t avoid it.  Here is a true story for you: It took McDonalds over 6 years to be able to purchase a historic building in downtown Eger, Hungary because their large trucks would not fit these tight streets, never mind turning. There was also a risk that the cobblestone streets would get damaged from letting heavy trucks in but eventually they settled a deal preserving the town.

Venice, Italy would be another location where you would have hard time finding chain hotels since the city is built on canals but what is wrong with boutique hotels here?

Chain hotels: While they are widely known standard hotels, they all look alike. It happens a lot even in high end chain hotels that the sheets are not clean, the cups are not washed, the mattress is bed bug infested, the storage room and dumpster has roaches and mice.  There are luxury chain hotels as well but not many can afford that.  Boutique hotels will have problems too but the innkeepers are just taking a better care of their own property and do it with pride and certainly quicker to fix anything; it may happen that the innkeeper is also a handyman or somebody in his immediate family.

When you stay in a small hotel and dine in their establishment you get personalized service and make friends with the innkeeper and other guests.  You support local businesses that way versus staying in a chain hotel feeding the pockets of large corporates who don’t even live in the country you are visiting.

It is important where you stay at night, it adds fun to your trip. Try to make it outstanding by staying in a historic or unique boutique hotel in Europe, or an eco lodge in Bali, an ice hotel in Canada, a glass dome in Scandinavian countries, a cave hotel in Turkey, a tree lodge in Africa or a ski lodge in the Alps.  You can spend a night on a historic train in Russia, a bullet train in Finland, a glass top train in Alaska or the Shinkanzen train in Japan!  Make memories that last!

Clarification: once a chain hotel gets sold the franchise rules with its expected standards no longer apply!

In summary: you need to be comfortable when you travel but you also need to adjust a little bit to the country you are visiting or the activities you signed up for.  The world does not spin around you but you can make it comfortable and enjoyable in many ways.  Do your research before paying for a hotel so there are no surprises or ask a travel agent to help you.

Travel agents make money by earning a commission on sales.  Boutique hotels may not cost as much as chain hotels and definitely don’t pay as much commission as chain hotels do (some are not even affiliated with travel agents at all so those don’t get offered) but if your travel agent talks you out of staying in a boutique hotel contact me, I’m not one of those travel agents who offers you hotels based on commission rates.

 

Posted in Budget, Flying on Miles, Hotel, Travel

Survey on American travel credit cards

Travel credit cards are rewards cards that help users earn free travel, achieve elite member status with hotels and airlines and enjoy many other travel-related perks. Although travel credit cards can often be used for cash back too, consumers receive better value when using them to collect and redeem points for travel.

Travel credit cards fall into one of three types: airline cards, hotel cards and general travel cards. A co-branded airline or hotel credit card enters you into a specific brand’s loyalty membership club and rewards all types of spending, however the points you earn can only be redeemed toward that single brand and its partners. General travel cards also reward all types of spending, at a lower, flat rate, but the points you earn can be redeemed with a variety of airline and hotel loyalty programs, based on the partnerships secured by the card issuer.

2017 Survey: More Than Half of Travel Rewards Cardholders Carry a Monthly Balance

U.S. News surveyed 1,278 travel credit card users to understand the benefits and drawbacks of owning one. While the vast majority of respondents have redeemed lucrative rewards in the last year, many cardholders are not aware of their annual fee or how to take advantage of their card benefits. Additionally, more than half of travel credit card users have carried a balance on their card in the last year, potentially negating the rewards they have earned.  Thirty-three percent of respondents earned more than $500 in rewards in the last year.  The most popular redemption options included free domestic flights, followed by cash back, followed by free nights at a hotel. Free international flights were the least commonly redeemed. More than half of travel credit cardholders surveyed carried a monthly balance in the last year.

Since travel rewards credit cards tend to have higher-than-average interest rates on purchases, carrying a balance has the potential to cost you more than any rewards you earn. Travel credit card expert Daraius Dubash of millionmilesecrets.com recommends that people carrying credit card debt should probably opt instead for a zero percent APR card and focus on eliminating their credit debt before trying to earn travel rewards.

Sign-up bonuses are one way that cardholders end up carrying a balance, says Joe Cortez, senior writer for frugaltravelguy.com. “In a way [a sign-up bonus] is almost a trap to try to get you to put a balance on the card up-front.” Forty-three percent of consumers surveyed said they qualified for their card’s sign-up bonus.

 

It’s also critical that consumers be aware of annual fees. Most respondents knew what their card’s annual fee was, while 17 percent of respondents didn’t know.

Nearly half of travel rewards cardholders don’t take advantage of cardholder benefits.  Ninety-six percent of respondents redeemed at least some rewards in the last year, but 48 percent of respondents did not take advantage of common cardholders benefits such as airport lounge access, trip cancellation/delay insurance, free checked bags when flying, auto rental insurance and priority boarding when flying.

How Travel Credit Cards Work

Travel rewards cards help users save money on travel expenses, like on airfare, hotel and transportation spending. Travel credit cards benefit repeat customers, because the more you spend, the more savings (or benefits) you receive.

Travel rewards cards offer higher earning rates for travel spending in particular, and may can be cashed in for highly discounted or free flights and hotel stays, free or reduced baggage fees, priority boarding and other perks. Some cards may not even require any points at all to take advantage of those perks, but they may carry an annual fee to offset those costs to the issuer.

Travel credit cards often come with lucrative sign-up bonuses with the best cards offering as many as 100,000 points to new members who hit a minimum spending amount within the first few months.

Like other premium rewards cards, travel cards are generally known to carry more restrictions and fees than the average credit card. For this reason, travel cards are not as beneficial for the occasional traveler.

There are three basic types of travel credit cards: airline, hotel and general travel.

 

Airline credit cards

Airlines partner with credit card companies to offer co-branded travel rewards credit cards that earn the most miles when used for flights on that particular airline and spending with affiliate partners, typically double or triple the miles. Cardholders still earn miles for day-to-day purchases (with a few exceptions like cash advances and purchases of prepaid cards), only at a lower rate, typically one point per dollar. You can redeem earned miles with that airline or its affiliates.

Benefits: Perks and spending rewards

Airline cards can deliver a cheaper, more comfortable flying experience. Benefits often include free or reduced baggage fees, priority boarding, complimentary or discounted access to the airport lounge and discounts on in-flight purchases.

But airline cards can also save you money by offering sizable sign-up bonuses, waived foreign transaction fees and double or triple miles earned on airline and affiliate purchases.

 

Hotel credit cards

Hotel credit cards are most valuable when used to book accommodations with that particular hotel chain. Unlike airline cards, it’s not uncommon to earn five points per dollar spent with that brand, with other travel purchases earning fewer points and all other purchases earning the least. Points have to be redeemed through that brand or its partners.

Benefits: Free nights and special status

Hotel credit cards work best for loyal guests of one particular hotel chain or group. Free nights are the most valuable benefit, and most hotel cards provide users with an easier path toward elite status, which delivers perks like guaranteed room availability, membership discounts, priority check-in, and complimentary upgrades. As with airline credit cards, one-time sign-up bonuses are common if you spend a minimum amount within the first few months.

Some hotel cards charge an annual fee that’s waived during the first year, but those that do typically don’t charge foreign transaction fees. Many hotel cards provide various forms of travel insurance, like lost baggage protection, trip delay reimbursement, emergency assistance and car rental insurance coverage. Some hotel rewards programs let you transfer your points to their airline partners.

 

General travel credit cards

General travel credit cards are not tied to any particular travel brand and offer the flexibility to redeem through their own travel portals or transfer points to partners to redeem for cruises, hotel packages, rental cars and cruises, among other options. Purchases typically carry a flat reward rate, but points can be redeemed from a broad selection of travel brands and sometimes for nontravel rewards.

Benefits: Flexibility and value

General travel cards are inherently more flexible than airline or hotel credit cards, which is a big plus for travelers who aren’t loyal to any particular brand or who travel to destinations with fewer options for hotels or airports. Cardholders can worry less about blackout dates or travel restrictions because they’re not tied to a sole provider.

Points can sometimes be transferred to other loyalty programs. However, points don’t transfer equally with all partners and the exchange rates do vary; in some cases you get get the best redemption value by transferring points to partners. It’s important to review your card’s reward charts to better calculate the value of transferring your points with partners.

The ability to also redeem general travel card points toward statement credits or cash back makes this type of card particularly attractive to users who prioritize flexibility.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Travel Rewards Credit Cards

For the right consumer, travel credit cards can make a lot of financial sense, but it’s important to understand the pros and cons.

Benefits

Better point valuations and redemptions: Travel-related spending with travel credit cards accrues points and miles faster than general rewards credit cards, and when those miles are redeemed for travel, they have potential to deliver better ratios than other rewards like cash back or statement credits. Points can be used to book free nights at hotels or for free flights.

Travel perks: Many travel credit cards also offer perks like free checked bags, priority boarding, concierge services and travel protection and assistance.

No foreign transaction fees: A foreign transaction fee is a surcharge on every purchase made on a credit card outside the U.S. If your itinerary takes you overseas, a travel credit card that carries no foreign transaction fees helps you avoid that added cost, which is typically 3 percent of the purchase price.

Drawbacks

High costs: Travel cards’ purchase interest rates (APRs) fall on the higher end of the scale for all credit cards, and the credit score needed to secure them starts in the upper 600s. Qualifying credit scores on the lower end of the spectrum will, in turn, result in higher APRs.

Top travel cards charge annual fees that require high amounts of travel or other spending to offset them via rewards. Similarly, sign-up bonuses may encourage you to spend more just to qualify for them.

“I think that many consumers are very excited about the points without considering how much they’re going to spend in actual interest at the end of the day,” Cortez says. To avoid running a high balance on the card, Cortez explains that a savvy consumer will look at his or her budget in light of the required minimum spending amount to qualify for a sign-up bonus and determine a plan to earn the points in a way that complements their lifestyle.

Restrictions: Travel credit cards can also cost you time. Some cards require lots of planning or working with customer service to navigate blackout dates, limited seat availability or confusing terms and conditions. Depending on the card, there can also be restrictions on earning miles, including caps and expiration dates. And, of course, bonus points from airline and hotel cards are restricted to redemption only with that brand or qualifying partners.

Emily Jablon, co-founder at Million Mile Secrets, points out that for an expensive or long-distance trip, it may be worth the added cost to enlist the help of an award-booking service. For a fee ranging from $75 to $250 per traveler, services like Cranky Concierge and AwardAdvocate can help you find and book the lowest fares for award travel and answer any questions you may have about your trip.

Choosing the Best Travel Credit Card

Is a travel credit card right for you?

Make sure you meet these requirements before signing up for a travel rewards credit card.

  • You travel frequently. If you don’t consistently spend on airfare, hotels or other travel expenses, consider a cash back credit card instead. They have fewer limitations on redemption and might save you the cost of an annual fee.
  • You have a good credit score. You have the best chances of being approved for a travel credit card if you have a FICO score of at least 700.
  • You pay off your balance each month. Because travel credit cards have higher-than-average APRs, you should only get a travel card if you can pay off your balance each month.

To find a travel card that meets your needs, evaluate each card using the following criteria:

  1. Pick the right rewards program for you.
  2. Calculate earning potential.
  3. Factor in sign-up bonuses.
  4. Calculate redemption value.
  5. Subtract annual fees.
  6. Understand travel benefits.
  7. Avoid foreign transaction fees.

1. Pick the right rewards program for you.

Your travel credit card will work either in conjunction with the loyalty program of an airline or hotel chain or with the rewards program of the bank or credit card company that backs it. Each program has its benefits as well as unique terms and conditions for earning, redeeming and transferring points.

Loyalty airline programs

For some travelers, their loyalty to any particular airline lasts only as long as that airline offers the cheapest flights. But frequent flyers are often willing to forgo initial cost savings in exchange for benefits down the road. Which airline’s program works best for you will depend on several factors regarding the loyalty program and the airline itself.

Popular airline programs:

Loyalty hotel programs

When you look for a hotel, do you prioritize value or luxury? The answer will help you determine which hotel rewards program is right for you. As with airline loyalty programs, your earned points may only be eligible for redemption with one hotel chain and its affiliate partners. Some hotel rewards programs have partnerships with other brands, such as Marriott Rewards, which allows members to redeem and earn points with The Ritz-Carlton Rewards program.

Popular hotel rewards programs:

General points program

Using a general travel credit card enters you into the rewards program for the bank or credit card company that backs it. While you will have access to the broader redemption platform for that provider’s network of credit cards, you’ll still receive the best value by redeeming for travel through the platform or using the platform to receive statement credits for travel purchases made on the card.

Maximizing your rewards means matching your goals and habits with the appropriate type of travel rewards program. If you want deluxe benefits that come with elite membership status, an airline or hotel card is the way to go.

However, if you don’t travel as often and want maximum flexibility when you do, as well as a broader range of earnings categories, a general travel card is usually the smartest choice for your first travel card. Frequent flyers often find that adding a second, co-branded loyalty card to their wallet makes sense once they’ve established a favorite airline or hotel chain.

 

2. Calculate earning potential.

Travel cards earn rewards at different rates for spending in different categories, so you have to analyze your spending habits to determine which card will help you maximize your points. A good travel card will have a range of purchases that qualify as travel spending. These purchases can include:

  • flights
  • stays at hotels, motels, timeshares and campgrounds
  • car rentals
  • cruises
  • trains
  • buses, taxis, limousines and ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft
  • parking lots and garages
  • bridge and highway tolls
  • meals and other non-lodging expenses at hotels

Depending on the type of card, these purchases can earn between 1.5 and seven points. The highest points tend to come with hotel cards, while airline cards typically award double to triple miles for flight purchases. All other purchases, often referred to as everyday spending, typically earn between one and two points per dollar spent.

 

3. Factor in sign-up bonuses.

The most lucrative travel cards offer bonus points to those who meet a certain level of spending by a specified date, usually within three to six months. These bonuses can be worth hundreds of dollars. For example, the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards card offers 50,000 points when you spend $2,000 in the first three months, and the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card offers 20,000 points when you spend $1,000 in the first three months.

 

4. Calculate redemption value.

Every travel card carries a rate at which points or miles are awarded. However, what those points are worth to you depends on the value you derive from redeeming them, as well as your preferences and priorities.

For general travel cards, point valuation is simple math: your number of points multiplied by the redemption rate, often a rate of 1 cent to 1 point. On the surface, award travel with airlines or hotels is also straightforward: The typical cost of a flight or room is divided by the number of miles you need to book an award flight or stay.

But airlines and hotels frequently adjust the price of award travel based on award level, award availability, time, destination/location, fare/hotel class, demand and other factors. All of these changes will affect the value of your miles, making valuation for airlines in particular “extremely complicated,” according to Dubash. “You’ll see estimates all over the place.” He and Cortez both cite 2 cents per mile as a general standard for miles with the major airlines, while the value of miles with smaller airlines like Southwest and JetBlue may fluctuate higher or lower than 2 cents.

Other factors that affect the value of your rewards program include:

  • whether there are fees for checked bags, foreign transactions, etc.
  • whether your points can be transferred to another loyalty program and at what ratio
  • how easy it is accrue and redeem points and whether you face blackout dates, seat restrictions or other limitations
  • the quality of perks available to you once you reach top-tier elite status

5. Subtract annual fees.

Credit card companies entice new users by waiving the annual fee for the first year, which typically ranges from $40 to $95, although it can go as high as $450 per year. Once the fee kicks in, be sure you’re earning enough rewards or enjoying the other card benefits to compensate for it. For example, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard’s $89 annual fee activates in the second year, but you might easily save that amount through the card’s discounts on car rentals, vacation packages, charter flights or flights with one of its airline partners.

There are also excellent cards on the market that don’t carry an annual fee. For example, the Discover it Miles card is a no-fee card that doubles users’ rewards at the end of the first year of use, has no foreign transaction fees and offers a flat 1.5 percent rewards rate on all purchases, including nontravel expenses.

 

6. Understand travel benefits.

Travel benefits can be practical tools, discounted pricing or luxe perks. Common benefits include no foreign transaction fees, access to 24/7 concierge or customer service lines, free baggage and travel insurance. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card comes with trip cancellation/interruption insurance, lost luggage reimbursement, car rental theft and collision coverage, baggage delay insurance, trip delay reimbursement, 24/7 customer service and more.

The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier credit card and Business credit card provide A-list status users with priority check-in and boarding, free same-day standby and dedicated customer service. Members of the top two tiers can get free in-flight Wi-Fi and free flights for a friend every time they fly.

The Marriott Rewards Premier credit card comes with zero foreign transaction fees and a free night stay every year after your account anniversary. Members at the introductory level get free in-room internet, while the upper tiers promise lounge access and breakfast, free room upgrades, guaranteed room availability, late checkout, elite customer service lines and arrival gifts.

 

7. Avoid foreign transaction fees.

The best travel cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee, which is typically 2 to 3 percent on every purchase. Since these fees can be greater than any rewards you earn, frequent overseas travelers will want to make this card feature a top priority.

 

Strategies to Maximize Travel Rewards

Pick the right first travel card.

When you’re first starting out with travel cards, select one with a general miles program that gives you the flexibility to earn rewards for all spending and redeem with the largest variety of brands. Unless you spend large amounts on travel expenses with a particular brand, airline and hotel cards offer less flexibility and savings.

Combine a general travel card with a cobranded or loyalty card.

Used in tandem with a general travel card, an airline or hotel card makes sense for frequent travelers who are comfortable committing to one particular travel brand. This combination allows you to use the cobranded card to earn bonus points on the cobranded airline/hotel spending and use the general travel card to still earn bonus points in non-travel spending categories. You want to make sure your general travel card is allowed to transfer points to the cobranded card, for maximum value.

For example, Chase Sapphire Preferred works well with the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. You can earn Chase Ultimate Rewards by spending with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and transfer them to Southwest to either book with miles, or earn double miles by booking with your Southwest Rapid Rewards card. Cortez says he’s a fan of this card combination particularly for casual travelers, as Southwest offers 100 percent award seating availability and doesn’t charge a fixed amount of miles for flights, allowing travelers to find some good bargains on their tickets.

For a general travel/hotel combo, the Hyatt Credit Card also works well with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. You can earn points with either card and also transfer your Ultimate Rewards into the World of Hyatt rewards program.

Maximizing Your Card Benefits Abroad

Knowing how your travel credit card works and what benefits and protections it offers (or doesn’t offer) can help you solve some of the problems that may arise when you’re abroad.

Avoid foreign transaction fees.

If you’re not sure if your card has foreign transaction fees, check with your bank when you notify them of your upcoming trip. You can also verify with them that your card has EMV smart chip technology, which is the most compatible with foreign merchants and provides the best security.

Avoid dynamic currency conversion.

Many foreign merchants let you choose to be charged in local currency or to pay with dollars through dynamic currency conversion. You should always opt for local currency, as the exchange rate will likely be poor and/or have a fee tacked on top. It’s always good to have cash on-hand regardless in case a store or restaurant won’t accept your card.

Know who to contact in an emergency.

Signature Visa cardholders have free access to a 24/7 benefits administrator who can provide medical referrals, contact loved ones and arrange for payments. Likewise, Citibank cardmembers can receive round-the-clock referrals and other help with medical and legal emergencies.

Some programs, like Visa Signature and World Elite MasterCard, provide 24/7 global services for card-related needs and expedited card replacement, and Visa gives an emergency cash advance or Western Union wire transfer within two hours of approval by your bank.

For common travel medical emergencies, an officer from the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate can help connect you with treatment services, inform loved ones and facilitate the transfer of funds, if necessary. All medical expenses will be your responsibility, however.

Take advantage of travel insurance.

MasterCard and Visa both include travel protections through their cards, as well as travel insurance for an additional cost. World Elite MasterCard offers members international travel accident and medical expenses coverage up to $1 million each, plus trip inconvenience protection and luggage protection.

Visa Signature’s plan offers cardholders and their immediate family members Common Carrier Travel Accident Insurance (for accidents involving your airline, train or cruise ship) up to $500,000 and 24-Hour Travel Accident Insurance for injury, dismemberment or loss of life up to $100,000.

Only 15 percent of credit cards offer travel cancellation insurance, and due to the lack of medical coverage and routine exceptions to Common Carrier protection, the benefits are limited. You may want to opt for third-party travel insurance for fuller coverage.

Protect your rental car.

Your personal car insurance policy probably will not cover foreign travel, so you’ll need to purchase auto insurance in your destination country, preferably at an equivalent level of coverage to what you carry at home.

Travel cards with Visa Signature and World Elite MasterCard benefits offer auto rental collision damage waivers that provide reimbursement over and above any primary insurance you have for towing, loss of use, theft and/or damage to the car up to the full cash value of most rental vehicles booked using that card.

There are restrictions, however, including the country of travel, type of vehicle, age of the vehicle and length of the rental period. And you’ll be required to refuse the collision damage waiver at the car rental counter. Third-party liability, personal accident and personal property coverage will not be included with your card’s coverage, which is why TripAdvisor Travel Advocate Wendy Perrin advises carefully considering which of your credit cards will give you the best coverage (and not result in an increase in your insurance premium).

Be sure to file your claim as soon as possible because time limits are strictly enforced, and have as much documentation as you can. This includes copies of the accident report, rental agreement and receipt, repair estimate, police report and plenty of photos.

Additionally, in some countries, you will need an International Driving Permit. An IDP can be purchased from AAA or the American Automobile Touring Alliance for a $20 fee with a valid driver’s license, two passport pictures and a completed application.

 

Get help with your lost luggage.

Many travel rewards credit cards offer benefits to help you deal with lost luggage. The Lost Luggage Locator Service of Visa Signature can assist with the airline’s claim process or arrange for replacement items to be shipped to you. Both Visa Signature and World Elite MasterCard guarantee users reimbursement for lost or delayed baggage of $100 a day for three days.

 

Airline liability can be complicated for international travel. Your rights are laid out in either the Warsaw Convention or the Montreal Convention, depending on which country you’re traveling to. Frommer’s has a good breakdown of what to do in the event of lost luggage under either scenario, plus best practices for avoiding lost bags in the first place.

 

Contact: Anna Gonzales – Outreach Associate working with U.S. News & World Report

 

 

Posted in Budget, Cheap Airline, Europe, Travel

RyanAir – An airline that nickels and dimes customers

Dear Travelers:

You like low cost airlines, so do we.  They say you get what you pay for and that is the case with Ryan Air; you only get a seat on an airplane that takes you from A to B.

It is well known that if you choose your seats or request extra leg room, you pay extra. Wanna check a baggage? Not free either but a carry-on luggage is.

Checking-in online at home and printing your own boarding passes are no big deal anymore but what happens when you send senior citizens (my parents) on a trip who have no smart phones with internet connection, additionally we did not have internet at the beach house in Malta and obviously we don’t travel with printers.  Well, apparently not everybody can check-in online and print boarding passes on the way back!! We were on a remote location about an hour from the capital.

My flight from Malta to Washington was early in the morning, my parents had to fly back to Budapest at 7:10 PM with RyanAir.  Before I left I gave them the flight confirmation but obviously I could not check them in online due to the lack of internet and printer.  RyanAir did not accept the flight confirmation (payment for 2 seats), apparently they penalize travelers for not checking-in online and printing their own boarding passes.  The penalty is almost as much as the airfare so they basically re-sell you the same seats! I paid $60 per person for the ticket and the penalty at the airport was 50 Euro (roughly $54) per person. The penalty is per segment, so if you need to transfer somewhere the 50 Euro doubles up per person!

My elderly parents speak no English, they just kept showing the document I gave them, which was the flight confirmation.  I gifted these tickets to my parents to be able to attend a family reunion so they had no record of the purchase; I had the email confirmation.  My mom panicked at the counter thinking they won’t be able to fly back home and of course she had no way to reach me since I was in the air, flying back home. She unwillingly agreed to pay whatever RyanAir demanded with the foreign transaction fees.  I can’t say RyanAir is kind and fair, their conversion rate between the Euro and the Hungarian Forint was the lowest I have ever seen; they gained some money on the purchase transaction too!  Mom usually never travels with her bank card abroad (she never needs money when she is with me) but luckily my sister was cautious and put it in her valet.  Imagine what could have happened if they did not have their bank card with them because they did not have cash on them either.  They might have gotten stranded at the Malta airport!

After I returned to the USA I opened a dispute with RyanAir but basically I wasted my time.  They said I could have checked them in online 60 days in advance if I prepaid for seats but you are on your own if you don’t have seats selected (like I do).  This is their way to enforce travelers to buy seats!  When you don’t have a seat selected you can only check-in 4 days in advance so if you take a week long vacation (like we did), may the Power be with you.  You need to find a library (if there is any near you) or if you stay in a hotel, perhaps you can ask for help from the receptionist or concierge unless they have a business room.  If you rent an apartment or a beach house with no internet and printer (like I did), just prepare yourself to fork out extra cash at the airport.

Their customer service sucks the same way the airline does.  You can only send them a complaint via an online form but you are limited to type 1000 characters.  They will respond within a few days but you can’t reply to their emails anymore.  I chatted with an agent online who suggested me to send a new complaint. Good god!

Before you choose RyanAir, please take a look at the other airlines as well, the other fare might cost more money but check all additional fees and if they throw you any peanuts onboard or not.  If RyanAir could charge you for using their bathroom they would, perhaps Number 2 would cost you more 😉

Photo: Ryanair.com

Posted in Car Rental, Mexico, Travel

Renting a car in Mexico

Renting a car in Mexico costs nickel and dime comparing to what car rental insurance costs which can easily double, if not, triple up the rental costs, so I understand travelers wanting to use their own credit card’s insurance to cut back unnecessary expenses. I tried to do the same.

After being scammed in Costa Rica  I took all the precautions I could think of prior to my Mexican trip to avoid scam. There is always new under the Sun 😉

Your American credit card probably comes with a car rental insurance which is (or should be) accepted worldwide, including Mexico, if there are exclusions they are mentioned in the benefit package. I have a Chase credit card via  United Airlines so in my case only Ireland, Northern Ireland, Jamaica and Israel are excluded, Mexico should be fine.

In order for you to be able use your car rental insurance you must decline the rental company’s collision insurance and charge the entire rental cost to your card. Coverage is primary and provides reimbursement up to the actual cash value of the vehicle for theft and collision damage for most rental cars in the U.S. and abroad. The damage or theft must take place during the rental period as outlined in the rental agreement.

What do you do when you show up at the rental agency to pick up your reserved car and the folks tell you that your credit card’s insurance is not accepted?  You can always argue, best case scenario in English, worst case in Spanish, but they are pretty much in control. Unfortunately you don’t have the same rights like here in the USA, you depend on them.

I did some digging and read other blogs on the net so what I’m sharing with you today is the combined knowledge of a few travelers, including mine.

  1. Book a rental car on an American or European web site, choose a chain instead of a local Mickey Mouse company.  If you deal with an American or European chain, you are a little more protected and can file a complaint when you return.
  2. A month prior to your Mexican trip contact your credit card provider and ask for a letter in both English and Spanish describing the car insurance benefit your credit card has. Said letter should state the account holder’s name but if somebody else drives your rental car the letter should mention his/her name as well and you have to note that on both the car rental reservation and the rental contract.  There should be a description of your car insurance benefit stating it is valid in Mexico and what it exactly covers in what amounts. (On a side I would like to mention that credit card companies have an auto-generated letter and they may not state everything that Mexico requires).
  3. When you have this letter in Spanish you have to submit it to the Mexican government for approval via email, it is called the Comision Nacional De Seguros Y Fianzas. Please take a note of their email address: soporte_ma@cnsf.gob.mx. There is a big change you won’t get a reply from them or you get a ticket number of your request but nobody follows it up with you. I did not hear back from anybody either so I sent an email to both Expedia, where I reserved my car, and EuropCar, where I was going to rent a car from to let them know about my failed attempts. I sent a second email to the Mexican government.  EuropCar could not care less, Expedia stepped up and told me to save the receipt and file a claim upon return should my “rental rate go up” or if EuropCar overcharges me.
  4. If you are +Gold member at Expedia, like I am, you can travel with ease and have more chances of getting your money back.  The Costa Rican case took me 6 months but Expedia always backed me up.
  5. My Expedia car rental reservation came with a Third Party Liability Insurance (SLI) which is mandatory in Mexico, if yours does not come with it, you will need one.  If you buy that in the USA the Mexican agency may not accept it, they will sell you their own and you cannot control that.  Despite all my preparation EuropCar still charged me Liability Insurance because they did not accept the one that I bought on Expedia and charged me another nice amount for Damage and Loss Waiver, which came with my credit card.  They said I was supposed to communicate with the Mexican government for their approval. I showed them I tried but failed.  Total loss is $189.  You cannot win, you are at their mercy so buy the cheapest car you can get and except charges to be added to your original reservation cost. Don’t prepay anything so that you have a chance to walk away from anything you don’t like. Except the worst and hope for the best.

Safe travels, my friends, let me know how yours go! Good luck!

 

 

Posted in Baltic States, Car Rental, Europe, Ferries, Scandinavia, Trains, Travel

Building your own Baltic-Scandinavian road trip and cross country travel

If you have the Baltic states and the Scandinavian countries on your bucket list, like I do, you are looking at one of the most complex and lengthiest road trips on air planes, trains, buses, ferries and rental cars. You are crossing from EU countries into non-EU countries passing immigration check-points; Russia requires a tourist visa and Sweden has travel restrictions due to the refugee crisis.  Taking a cruise would be the easiest and perhaps the safest way to see it all, but you know me, I don’t like it the easy way, a cruise gives me no work when everything is organized.  The cheapest cruise only includes 4 countries in 7 days and starts from $1,000 per person not including airfare, and as we all know, you won’t see much of Europe by taking a cruise.

Time is the most important thing on a vacation so when you are traveling you need to plan it smart while staying on a budget.  Distance is pretty big here so you don’t want to take the same road or ferry twice.

Here are some travel tips for you:

Since hotels are very expensive in Nordic countries I prefer taking the night trains or ferries so we are traveling while sleeping, waking up in the next city.  Just like anybody else, I would like a nice hotel room with comfortable beds and room service but Scandinavia is too expensive for me.  I solved that problem by booking a night train and ferry and killed two birds by one stone, we are traveling while sleeping!  These trains have sleeping compartments, dining compartments and shared showers in each wagon but if you can afford a luxury cabin you will get your own private bathroom and living room with a turn down service!

The Grand Express is the most popular train in Russia, which is a luxury night train. It takes 8 hours to get to St. Petersburg from Moscow but you are traveling at night, sleeping comfortably.  Mostly tourists take it because it is considered to be a “one of a lifetime” experience and I decided to do the same.  Luxury cabins are air-conditioned cabins which consist of a bedroom, a bathroom with hair dryer and a separate living room equipped with flat screen TVs, DVD player and a mini bar.  The cabins are nicely decorated with paintings on the wall. Uniformed cabin attendants bring you towels, bathrobes with slippers, toiletries, newspapers, fruit plates, snacks, supper, chai, water. They serve your meals in the cabin and set you up for free transportation within your arrival city.  All passengers have free wifi and breakfast included.  Standard cabins don’t come with sheets but you can rent them and if you wish to shower you can use one of the shared bathrooms in each wagon for a couple of euros.  There is chai at the end of each wagon.

There are other fast trains in Russia as well, also consider the bullet train from St. Petersburg to Helsinki or Allegro.

Long distance buses are available between countries and I rate them with 5 stars because of comfort and luxury but I can’t shower and sleep on a bus, so for rides over 5 hours I consider other public transportation.  For international buses check out Lux Express and book your seats online, tickets start from 3 Euro per person.  We will be taking this bus from Tallinn to Riga, riding approximately for 4 1/2 hours.

buslux-express-66lux_express_minisait_sisevaade

Ferries: This is the easiest and cheapest way to travel around here; ferries are very similar to cruise liners, equipped with casinos and restaurants, pool, spa and duty free shopping arcades.  For overnight ferries book a cabin and take a good night rest, wake up in another country and have a nice breakfast onboard before hitting the city.

The most popular ferry lines are the following: Eckero LineTallink Silja, Viking Line,, St. Peter Line.

You are going to love Helsinki, Tallinn and Riga because these ports are in downtown so if you are only there for a day you may want to rent a luggage locker for a couple of euros before boarding the next ferry or bus that takes you to your next destination.  If you are staying in the city, consider booking a hotel in downtown to walk less with luggages and stay close to everything. PLEASE NOTE THAT IF YOU ARE TAKING A FERRY TO ST. PETERSBURG, YOU CAN NOW TAKE ADVANTAGE OF VISA FREE TRAVEL FOR UP TO 2 DAYS!!! That is a big deal because a Russian tourist visa for American citizens is $160 per person and requires a lot of paperwork from invitation letters to mandatory health insurance with a coverage of over $35K Euros.

rigatallinn

Helsinki, Finland
Scenic summer panorama of the Market Square (Kauppatori) at the Old Town pier in Helsinki, Finland

Rental cars: This is going to be the hardest task, I really don’t recommend it; it is doable but takes a lot of hassle and time if you are going to cross from EU to non-EU countries.  I read blogs about crossing from Estonia to Russia can take as many as 24 hours and as “short” as 12 hours if you purchase a rapid pass.  I kid you not!  If you must rent a car in the EU consider dropping it off before entering Russia but you will be fine everywhere else.  You can take your rental car on a ferry but that may get expensive when you are visiting a few countries taking multiple ferries and you still need to return the rental car in the same country.  Some countries accept your American driver’s license, some don’t so if you insist on driving then you need to get an international license for this trip, which will only be good for a year.  Norway and Russia are not in the EU but every country has rules on taking their rental cars out, some allow it, some don’t and if they do allow it, it comes with restrictions and extra costs.   One way rentals are possible for a surcharge but forget about dropping a car off in a different country, even if the countries are close to each other.

EU countries don’t want to you to drive to Russia but Russia allows you to take the rental car to EU countries as long as you buy a comprehensive car insurance and pay an additional fee.  Russia prohibits you to drive through certain formal member states, like Belarus, so if that is the case you can forget about driving from Moscow to Riga because you would need to cross there.  Keep in mind that it is not much to see between St. Petersburg and Moscow and the drive takes over 8 hours (non-stop); basically you are wasting a full day on driving when you could get an air ticket for $40 one way (with taxes included) on Aeroflot. Just my 2 cents.

moscow

Moscow, St. Peter’s Basilica

Sweden has similar restrictions; most rental car companies don’t let you take the car out of the country, except Sixt and Hertz, where you need to pay an extra fee; they call it a license, I call it a rip-off; they just want to get more money out of you. In Europe there is no such thing as a “license” but there is a difference between insurance policies and how countries accept foreign insurances.  The are countries with higher car related crime rates but other factors, like theft (in Poland) and vandalism (in Sweden) also factor in the insurance policies.

stockholm

Keep in mind that you have to pay toll on most roads, tunnels and bridges in Scandinavia.  Roads are toll-free in Denmark with the exception of two toll bridges, the Øresund is 48 Euro one way while the Storebælt is 18 Euro for a minicar, pretty hefty I say.

copenhagen

Metro in Moscow: Well, I won’t say a word, just look at the photos below, you might think you are in a museum…No, that is how the metro stations look like in Moscow 🙂

metro3metro-2metro1

Images: Smarttravel, Autocarhire, Latvia-Florida, Ulkotours, Ilacnet, Theculturemap, Erlangfactory, Twistedsifter, RealRussia, Russiantrains, Travelukr, Travelfree, Luxexpress, Simplonpc,  Cruisingtalk, nwgw, baltictravelcompany, hiconsumption, architecturaldigest, Grand Express