Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Chip card

inside-passportToday’s top story: How being behind on your taxes could affect your travel plans. Also in the news: How to determine who you can claim as a dependent, financial steps to take when you’re on your own, and how to avoid costly credit card traps.

Haven’t Paid Your Taxes? You May Need to Cancel Your Travel Plans
Your passport could be in jeopardy.

This IRS Tool Tells You If You Can Claim a Dependent
Finding your tax breaks.

7 Financial Steps to Take Once You’re on Your Own
It’s a whole new world out there.

How to Avoid 5 Costly Credit Card Traps
Don’t fall in.

Saving money aboard a Disney cruise

Mom Dad Daughter beachIn a previous post, I covered ways you can save money when booking your Disney cruise. Here are a few more ideas for saving money while aboard.

Keep it simple. A friend who took the western Caribbean cruise booked an excursion at every port—and regretted it. Excursion costs tend to be high, particularly if you book with the cruise line, and they often aren’t necessary to have a great time. We booked just one real excursion, a day-long snorkel trip, that we found using TripAdvisor. We also bought the “extreme getaway” package for Castaway Cay (a “stingray adventure” and rental of snorkel equipment, bikes and floats) which turned out to be extreme overkill. I was the only one to ride a bike, and nobody took advantage of the floats. The stingray encounter was cool, though, and Disney’s snorkel garden is not to be missed.

Another option at most ports is to simply wander off the boat and try to arrange an excursion, but our experience is that the best providers are often booked up by the time the ship arrives.

Don’t save at another’s expense. Disney adds $12 per person per day to cover tips for the people who clean your stateroom, serve your meals and keep the ship looking tidy. That added up to $336 for our party of four. You can add to this tip amount—we did—plus you’ll also need tip money for:

  • porters who help you with your bags at the port,
  • your guides on excursions and
  • the waiters who bring room service and who serve you at the adult-only restaurants.

Don’t like to tip? There’s a simple solution: don’t cruise. There are plenty of do-it-yourself vacations where you can reduce or eliminate tipping. When you cruise, though, tips are part of the package and an essential supplement to the low wages most cruise workers earn.

Beware the budget busters. Unlike most other cruise lines, Disney doesn’t charge extra for sodas at meals—but it does charge for alcohol, and that can add up fast. Visits to the spa can add several hundreds of dollars to your bill, as can professional photography and Disney souvenirs.

You can choose to eschew these extras or budget for them in advance. For example, we set a $15-per-day limit for spending for our tween daughter and her friend that they used for popcorn (movie snacks are extra), stuffed animals and pins (trading Disney pins on board with cruise employees and other guests was a favorite activity). My husband and I also bought week-long passes to the spa, which was well worth the charge of about $100 per person. We ate at the adults-only restaurants Palo ($35 per person supplement) and Remy ($85 per person) and enjoyed them immensely.

You can use your stateroom key to charge just about anything you want to buy to your room, which is convenient and dangerous at the same time. The guest services desk will give you printouts of your bill any time you ask so that you won’t be surprised by how very much these add-ons add up by the end of your trip.

Thinking about a Disney cruise? Read this.

Mom daughter cruise worldIf your kids aren’t bugging you about taking a Disney cruise, then either you don’t have kids or they can’t talk yet. The idea that any child would be immune from Disney’s marketing might is hard to fathom.

Disney cruises are pricier than most others for good reason, as I explained this week in my Reuters column “How to get a Disney cruise for less.” Disney markets to families but aims for a luxury experience several cuts above the bargain brands. The company also uses demand pricing, so fares tend to go up over time, not down.

We took our first Disney cruise last month after (of course) extensive research and reading just about every “tips and tricks” article I could find. We scored a decent deal on our fare, but we also made a mistake or two—so I hope you can learn from those as well.

Here’s what we learned:

Go when others can’t. Most families have to book during school breaks. If you can go later or earlier, you can get lower fares. Our fare for two adults and two tweens in a stateroom with a balcony was about $6,000 for a 7-night eastern Caribbean route at the end of August, when many kids are already back at school. The Dec. 19 sailing for the same cruise costs twice that. (Actually, fares currently range from about $9,700 for an inside stateroom to about $31,000 for a one-bedroom concierge suite).

Inside is okay. While the veranda was nice, Disney’s inside cabins may be a better deal since you’ll spend far more time outside of your stateroom than in it. Inside cabins are usually the first to sell out, though, so you’ll need to plan in advance.

Check for deals. Mousesavers, an excellent tip site for all things Disney, keeps a running list of “Great Dates” that offer especially good fares.

Consider shorter cruises. The per-night cost tends to shrink when you take longer cruises. But the 3- and 4-night itineraries can give you a taste of Disney cruising for less overall. The Caribbean and Bahamas routes include a stop at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas that’s a real highlight.

Take the bus (or a limo). Disney figured out that one of the biggest downers of cruising (and traveling in general) is dealing with the luggage. So if you book their transfer service, they’ll whisk your bags from the airport baggage claim to your stateroom while your family rides to the port on a luxury bus. The cost is $70 per person, though, so I tried to save a few bucks by renting a car. The one-way rental cost was less than $75, but picking up and dropping off the vehicle would have been a major hassle even if I hadn’t run into a massive traffic jam caused by a brawl at another rental car company. If bus travel isn’t your thing, another option to consider is a private sedan or limo. (Again, Mousesavers has recommendations.)

I have a few more tips for saving money once you’re on the ship that I’ll post later this week.

 

Monday’s need-to-know money news

air-miles-cardToday’s top story: How your medical debt impacts your FICO score. Also in the news: Signs your parents are victims of a financial scam, what you need to know when hunting for scholarships, and how to fly first class on the cheap.

The Impact of Medical Debt on FICO Scores
A new formula treats medical debt differently.

5 Signs Your Parents Are the Victims of a Financial Scam
Older adults are more susceptible to scams.

Everything You Need to Know When Hunting for Scholarships
Helping your kids on the road to college.

How to fly first class for free (or on the cheap)
Bargain your way out of coach this summer.

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.