Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: Tax breaks for retirement savers. Also in the news: Surprising tax complaints, how to find cheap airfare, and becoming comfortable with investing using a mock portfolio.

10 tax breaks for retirement savers
How to minimize the taxes on your savings.

The Most Surprising Tax Complaint in America
No, it’s not slow refunds.

Best Ways To Purchase Cheap Airline Tickets
More money to spend on snow globes!

Try a Mock Portfolio to Get Comfortable With Investing
Testing your market skills without the risk.

6 Tips to Plan a Fun and Cheap Super Bowl Party
How to host a big party without spending big bucks.

January tune-up: Your credit cards

air-miles-cardCredit card rewards programs change so often that it makes sense to review your “credit portfolio” at least once a year—and now’s as good a time as any.

This post is directed at people with good credit who don’t carry balances. If that’s not you, then focus on paying off your credit card debt and store this information for future use.

If you do have good credit, you probably want to keep it that way. That means not closing or opening a bunch of accounts at once. You can, however, selectively prune your portfolio by closing an account or two and add the occasional new card without tanking your scores. Just don’t open or close accounts while you’re in the market for a major loan such as a mortgage, HELOC or auto loan.

With those caveats covered, your first task is to review the cards you have now to see if they still deserve a place in your wallet. The first to go: any card you’re not using that charges an annual fee. If the card doesn’t charge a fee but you haven’t used it in a year or more—and see no reason to do so in the future—you’ll have to weigh whether the hassle of monitoring the account outweighs the potential ding to your credit.

Because we have more than two dozen open credit accounts, many with high limits, I finally shut down a couple old Chase cards we hadn’t used in eons…with no perceptible impact on my scores. I also shut down a British Airways card that charged an annual fee because I had a better alternative—a Starwood Preferred Guest Amex card that has a great earn rate and a huge array of ways to use rewards, including a way to dump points into my British Airways frequent flier program, should I want to do so.

Next scrutinize the cards you do use. Are you able to earn rewards at a good clip and cash them in easily? You should be getting an average rewards rate of at least 1 percent and preferably closer to 2 percent of your purchases. (Some programs deliver even more.) If you’re not using your rewards, are you working toward a reasonable short-term goal? Given how fast points and miles get devalued, you don’t want to delay too long in using them. Remember the mantra: Earn ’em and burn ’em.

Now see if there may be better cards for your needs. Check out NerdWallet’s list of best reward cards, which is updated frequently. (Looks like you also can ask for advice and recommendations in the comments.) Another site I like to check for great travel rewards card offers is The Points Guy.

Think about how and where you use your cards and what type of rewards you’re after. Cash-back cards are typically the easiest rewards to get and redeem. Hotel cards can give you elite status with certain perks. Airline-branded cards can make sense for frequent fliers—if you check a couple of bags on a couple of flights, you’ll often offset the annual fee. More general travel cards can allow you to put miles into different plans or offset the costs of travel.

Ideally, you’ll find a card that meets your needs while offering a fat sign-up bonus. To get the bonus, you’ll have to spend a certain amount within a certain time, so make sure you can do that before you submit the application.

While cars no longer require traditional tune-ups, your finances still do. This month I’ll be reviewing some areas of your money that deserve some extra scrutiny and offering suggestions for the best moves now. Stay tuned for more posts–and to make sure you don’t miss any, you can sign up for my newsletter using the link on my home page.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Holiday-tipping-in-tough-times-7FKMMIM-x-largeToday’s top story: A stress-free guide to holiday tipping. Also in the news: How to ease the financial strain of caregiving, financial resolutions to keep in 2015, and credit card strategies for travelers.

A Last-Minute Guide to Holiday Tipping
One less thing to stress over.

5 Ways to Ease the Financial Strain of Caregiving
Hiring help can actually save you money in the long run.

10 Financial Resolutions to Keep In the New Year
“Keep” being the operative word.

3 Irresistible Credit Card Strategies for Travelers
Supercharging your travel budget.

Retirement: 5 ways to make the most of 2015
Your retirement checklist for 2015.

Flight delays? Lost luggage? Your credit card may help

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailHundreds of flights have already been cancelled on this busy travel day, with more cancellations and delays likely to come as a winter storm rolls through the East Coast. If you used the right credit card to book your trip, though, you may be entitled to some compensation.

Most cards offer some kind of travel protection, but some of the policies are pretty weak, even for high-end cards. Some only offer compensation for lost baggage, while others offer hundreds of dollars in compensation for trip delays–and thousands for trip cancellations.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card, for example, is justifiably famous among savvy travelers for its generous delay and cancellation protection: If your trip is canceled or cut short by illness, severe weather and “other covered situations,” can can be reimbursed up to $10,000 for prepaid, nonrefundable expenses. You can get up to $500 for trip delays and a whopping $3,000 for lost luggage. (Many other cards limit lost luggage reimbursement to $500.) Other high-end Chase cards, along with The United Explorer Visa Platinum Card, offer similar top-drawer benefits.

Citi recently stepped up its game, and now offers card members refunds for trip expenses if unforeseen events like severe weather, jury duty or even previously unannounced strikes cause trip cancellations. The coverage is limited to $1,500 for most cardholders, though some get up to $5,000. Those with ThankYou Premier or Citi Prestige can get up to $500 to buy clothes and toiletries if their bags are delayed. If a trip is delayed, these travel rewards card members also can get up to $500 for unplanned expenses such as hotel rooms, ground transportation and meals.

Travel cards that you think would have pretty good protection–such as American Express or Capital One Venture–unfortunately don’t. Amex offers travel protection for an extra cost and CapOne covers just lost or stolen luggage (although the limit is $3,000).

If you’re affected this weekend by travel hassles, call and ask the credit card company that you used to book the trip what your options might be. If you don’t like what you hear, start looking for a better alternative for your next trip.

 

 

What’s wrong with Disneyland Paris

The castle at Disneyland Paris.

The castle at Disneyland Paris.

We decided to visit Disney’s European theme park just a few days before we were scheduled to leave France. We aren’t diehard Disney fans, but we had annual passes when our daughter was younger and thought it might be fun to see how the park outside Paris compared with the ones in Anaheim and Orlando.

Bottom line: We had a great time with one notable exception.

Getting to Disneyland Paris is dead easy: we just took a train from the city, the RER “A” line, one branch of which stops right outside the park. We got theme park admission tickets online in advance to avoid the line at the gate.

Using FastPass and a little strategy, we never waited more than about 10 minutes to board a ride. Our perception was that the park wasn’t nearly as crowded as American versions (which may explain why you can find discounted tickets, which aren’t common in the U.S.).

I also made lunch reservations at a restaurant with table service (the Blue Lagoon) two days in advance, and we had a great experience there. I tried to make a dinner reservation as well at Walt’s, but the earliest slot available was 9:30 p.m. We hadn’t become THAT Parisien, so we decided we’d use one of the “food on the go” places that dot the park. And that was our big mistake.

Similar restaurants at the U.S. parks typically have a line leading up to the cashier, where you order, and then a short wait until you pick up your food at the counter behind the cashier. It’s usually an efficient way to feed people, as the lines move quickly.

Not at Disneyland Paris. I spent more than 30 minutes standing in line, with wailing kids and increasingly impatient parents, and I was just two people away from the cashier virtually the whole time. She kept running back and forth to the counter as people complained about their messed-up orders. And this was at a place that had only three options for a main course: a Barvarian hot dog, chicken and a cheeseburger.

A lot’s been written about the lack of a “service culture” in France. I’d never found it a problem before then, because treating people with respect and politeness usually brings good results. But my experience at a theme park did make me miss good old fashioned American efficiency.

Still, a Disneyland Paris visit is well worth the short trip. Here’s some advice to make the most of it:

Plan at least a little in advance. It’s not that hard to find and buy discounted tickets. If nothing else, buy tickets online from the Disneyland Paris site and bring them with you to avoid the lines at the gate.

Make reservations at a table service restaurant or buffet. These are the most expensive options, but they’re also a great way to build a break into your day. You have to call in advance, and the earlier you call the more options you’ll have for venue and time.

Learn the FastPass system. The most popular rides allow you to reserve a time slot in advance. You may have to zigzag through the park to hit all the best rides, but we were able to ride everything we wanted in one day. Some rides run out of FastPasses early, so ask an employee’s advice about which ones to get first.

Bring snacks and water bottles. As with all theme parks, snack prices are especially inflated. You can refill your water bottle at one of the drinking fountains.

One day is fine. Some people advise planning a three or four day visit, or at least one day per park (there are two, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios). Attractions at the second park are so slim, though, that we didn’t really regret missing it. If you have smaller kids who easily tire, you might want to break up your visit into a couple of days. But we found a one-day visit worked out just fine.

The lines at the Louvre: 3 ways to have a better time in Paris

Sainte-Chappelle

The stained glass of Sainte-Chappelle.

One thing that’s impossible to understand, no matter how many times we visit Paris: the long lines to get into the Louvre.

It’s not that the place isn’t amazing and an absolute must see. It’s that you can skip the lines simply by buying a Paris museum pass.

Even if you’re not big on museums, you’ll want to see the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay (a grand converted train station with a wonderful collection of Impressionist art) and the lovely Rodin museum and gardens. The admission costs for those three museums equal about 28 euros and the two-day pass costs 42 euros.  You only have to hit a couple more places–such as the jewel-like Sainte-Chappelle, with its breathtaking stained glass; the Conciergerie, with Marie Antoinette’s pre-guillotine cell; the excellent, relatively new Branly, with its collection of African art; the Centre Pompidou modern art museum; the Towers of Notre Dame–to more than offset the cost. Even if you ignore those, you have to ask yourself: what’s your time on vacation worth? So little that you’re willing to spend hours queuing in the hot sun or pouring rain? C’mon, people.

With this in mind, here are three ways to have a better time in Paris without breaking your wallet:

Get the museum pass. It’s 42 euros for two days, 56 for four, 69 for six. Kids under 18 usually get free admission (although we did have to pay a small entrance fee for them at the sewer tour. Yes, there is such a thing, and it’s interesting, although alas you no longer get to ride down the sewers in a boat). Buy your pass at one of the less popular sites to save yourself a long line. The Crypt at Notre Dame is a good place (while you’re there, check out the interactive screens that let you view the cathedral’s construction and the surrounding town from various angles) or the aforementioned Branly, which is between the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Stores like FNAC also sell them, and you can check online for other sites.

Use public transport. The downside to Paris’ subway and bus system is that it’s so good, everybody uses it–which means it can be packed. Still, it’s a fast, cheap way to get from site to site. You’ll be using it enough that it makes sense to get a pass if you’re staying more than a couple of days. The tourist pass is easy to get but more expensive; Navigo passes (what locals use) are a little more hassle to get but make riding pretty cheap.

Dine for lunch, picnic for dinner. After several lengthy, heavy French dinners in a row, we decided our stomachs and our wallets would do better dining out at lunch and having lighter meals or picnics with cheese, meat and bread for dinner. Use TripAdvisor to find good places to eat; its reviews are far more robust than Yelp’s (meaning more places reviewed and more reviews per restaurant).

Friday’s need-to-know money news

bank_fee1Today’s top story: How to escape the big banks and their fees. Also in the news: What not to buy at the big warehouse clubs, getting a credit card with poor credit, and why you should pay yourself first before paying any other bills.

Plot Your Escape From the Big Fees of Big Banks
Why give them more of your money?

What not to buy at warehouse clubs
Put back the three gallon drum of mustard.

Can I Get a Credit Card with Poor Credit?
Possibly.

Are You Paying Yourself First? The Money Habit That Can Boost Wealth
Don’t wait until you’ve paid everything else before taking care of you.

Surprising ways to pay for your dream trip abroad
Turning your dream trip into a reality.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: How to raise kids who are smart about money. Also in the news: How to save on your trip to Disney World, deciding when to hire a financial adviser, and the five things identity thieves are hoping you’ll do.

3 Ways You Can Raise Kids Who Are Smart About Money
Starting them off early.

Twelve Money-Saving Tactics for Disney World
Don’t turn your wallet over to Mickey.

When is the right time to hire a financial adviser?
Knowing when it’s time to get help.

5 Things Identity Thieves Want You to Do
Don’t give the jerks what they want.

Risk and Responsibility: Should You Cosign on a Loan?
Assessing a huge responsibility.

Communicating in Europe: Our cell phone solution

Bayeux

Bayeux, France

If your cell phone works overseas (and not all do), your wireless carrier is happy to sell you an international plan that typically includes a small amount of minutes, texts and data at what feels like a pretty inflated cost. (The cheapest option from AT&T: 120 megabytes of data for $30 a month, $10 for 50 messages, $30 for 80 minutes, for a total of $70 per month per phone for a fraction of what we’re used to at home.)

Apparently, if you don’t use your phone much, you might be fine with that. Given the way I use my phone—to scan email, translate signs and menus, find my way around, coordinate plans with friends and family, book restaurant reservations and check opening hours for museums —I couldn’t imagine paying so much for so little.

The good news is that you can get a lot more for a lot less, as long as you can get your hands on an unlocked phone. Fortunately for us, my iPhone was no longer under contract and we had an old iPhone 3 that my daughter could use, so AT&T sent instructions on how to unlock each one. A friend lent us a Samsung he’d purchased for overseas travel.

I unlocked our phones the day we left for Europe (I was still able to use it in the States that day, as per usual). Once we landed in London, we found our way to a little mobile phone shop just across the street from Harrods and picked up a SIM card for five pounds (about $8.50), which included a five-pound credit for talk time. The gentleman behind the counter inserted the new cards, showed us our new phone numbers and told us where we could buy a package of minutes, texts and data (just around the corner at a news stand, as it tuned out).

Our British numbers worked even after we arrived in France, but I wanted more data than the small plan we bought. Two blocks away from our apartment was an Orange store where another nice gentleman sold us SIM cards (for five euros, including a five-euro credit) plus calling/text/data plans. For 30 euros each, Daughter and I got plenty of minutes, texts and a full gigabyte of data for the month we’re spending in Paris. Hubby, who is not as entranced with the online world, got a less generous plan for 20 euros.

You can, by the way, buy SIM cards at airports, train stations and lots of other locations from kiosks or news stands. I highly recommend finding a mobile phone shop that has someone to help you set up your service, though, especially if you’ve never done it before.

My plan paid for itself just on our recent road trip to the D-Day beaches. I used Google Maps navigation as a GPS to get us from the edge of Paris to every location on our agenda and back again, complete with turn-by-turn voice instructions. That saved us the $12 daily rental fee for our four-day trip.