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.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

currencyToday’s top story: How to avoid currency exchange fees while traveling. Also in the news: How finances can reveal an unfaithful spouse, howto avoid ruining your retirement plan, and why it’s so important to include your digital assets in your estate planning.

5 money saving tips for exchanging currency
How to save on fees during your overseas travel.

11 Financial Signs Your Spouse is Cheating on You
There’s always a paper trail.

4 Ways to Ruin Your Retirement Plan
You’ll want to avoid these.

5 ways to protect your online assets
The importance of including your online accounts in your estate plan.

10 steps to take if you hope to retire soon
The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

Notes from London

LondonIn Los Angeles, a 10 percent chance of rain in the forecast means it’s not going to rain. In London, a 10 percent chance of rain means it will rain 10 percent of the day.

At least that’s my conclusion after our recent week tourizing that fine city.

Each morning, we made sure to pack our rain jackets regardless of the forecast, and just about every day we used them. We had one truly rainy day, but were (as the Brits say) spoiled for choice about where to spend it, since London has so many great indoor options to entertain the kiddos: the British Museum, a science museum, a natural history museum and an aquarium, to name just a few.

Most of the major museums are free. Spending time in one of London’s many parks is also free, and renting a bike to tool around will cost you just two pounds for the day (about $3.50). We appreciated these wallet-friendly options, because otherwise London can be an expensive city. (Just one example: two loads of laundry at a laundrette near Marble Arch set me back over $30. The proprietor was lovely, though, and there are worse things than spending a morning chatting with fellow travelers from all over the world.)

Some things are definitely worth the expense. Among them:

The hop-on, hop-off buses. I’ve long been skeptical of the open-top buses that cruise big cities, but the Big Bus tour we took had a witty guide and offered a great overview of the city. Our tickets included a boat ride on the Thames and several free walking tours. You can get your tickets at most of the stops, or get them in advance for a discount online. (We spent about $130 for three people.)

The Harry Potter tour at the Warner Bros. studio. Visit the sets, check out the props, be blown away by the scale models used in making the film. The digital guides, with audio and video commentary, are worth getting. (With the guides, we spent about $200 for admission plus about $50 for rail tickets to get there.)

The Tower of London. A thousand years of history in one place, with lots to interest the kiddos. (Admission for three was about $70.)

Matilda. Yes, we could have seen this terrifically fun musical made from Roald Dahl’s book in New York, but I’m glad we waited to see it in its native habitat. If you book in advance, you can get a better deal than the nearly $300 I shelled out for two tickets…so do that.

 

Two months, ten countries–one carry-on

Small tourist collects things in a suitcase for travelWe’re heading off for a European sabbatical soon, and we know from previous trips that dragging along a lot of luggage is a bad idea. If you’ve ever tried to roll a heavy bag down a cobbled street, or had to haul it up five flights of stairs because your quaint rented flat had no elevator, then you understand.

But we’re going to be gone for nine weeks, exploring cities, beaches, caves and countryside. Packing just shorts and flip flops isn’t an option.

Getting everything I think I need into a carry-on has been an interesting challenge. It’s kind of like writing blog posts and 400-word columns for Bankrate and DailyWorth after having written mountains of 1,800-word pieces for MSN. You lay it all out, and then you edit, edit, and edit again. And then maybe you sit on it and squish.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve found about packing light:

It’s worth it. No checked-bag fees, no long waits at baggage carousels, no lost luggage. The time, money and back strain saved are all well worth the effort of figuring out what to leave behind.

Everything should go with everything. So far, I’ve got the wardrobe down to one pair each of khakis, capris and shorts, in addition to the jeans I’ll wear on the plane. Five tops, two jackets, one sweater and one lightweight dress, plus a scarf or two, will allow me to create about 25 different outfits.

Think double-duty. My lightweight robe works as a swimsuit cover-up. My sandals work at the beach or a nice restaurant. My running shoes are low-key enough to work as casual dress shoes. Speaking of shoes:

Ease up on the footwear. They take up huge amounts of space. I’m trying to limit mine to the sneakers, a pair of black leather walking shoes and the flat-soled sandals.

Don’t bring what you’ll find there. I’m skipping most toiletries and hair appliances (which need adapters and converters to work over there, anyway). The hotels will have what we need and if they don’t, there will be shops.

Embrace digital. Not too long ago, every trip with the kiddo would mean packing a DVD player and DVDs along with books and games. I’d have a stack of novels and guidebooks. Hubby would bring much of the New York Times bestseller list. Now it’s all in our iPads.

If you’ve traveled long and light, I’d love to hear your trips for what to bring—and what not to bring.

UPDATE: We left for Europe with three carryons–and came back with two of them, plus two larger pieces of luggage. (One of the carryons, stuffed full of purchases, went home early with our niece.) My hubby’s penchant for buying big heavy art books, my daughter’s love of souvenirs and my flea-shopping habit quickly doomed the idea of traveling that light.

We should have consulted Will’s aunt, a retired travel writer, who roams the world with a medium-sized spinner. It’s big enough to bring what she needs but small enough for her to handle it without help.

Q&A: The best form of money to use while traveling through Europe

Dear Liz: My friend and I are widowed and really not money-wise. What is the best form of money to use in Europe, including Budapest, Vienna and various small towns? I’ve heard small-town merchants (and maybe even those in cities) don’t take credit cards, but even if they do, our bank charges substantial fees. I’ve also heard negative things about using ATMs. We’re going to be in most places only for one night, so getting each area’s currency would be cumbersome.

Answer: Americans accustomed to paying with plastic can be surprised to discover that merchants abroad, including some hotel owners, want to be paid in cash. Even businesses that accept credit cards may balk at processing U.S. cards, since our plastic lacks the more secure chip-and-PIN technology now used by most of the rest of the world.
So you’d be smart while traveling abroad to have multiple ways to pay and to choose methods that don’t ding you with excessive fees.

Let’s start with credit cards. Carry at least one with a Visa or MasterCard logo, because those are the most widely accepted brands in Europe. Call your issuers to see whether they charge foreign transaction fees. Many do, and these fees of up to 3% make every purchase more expensive than it needs to be. If all of your cards charge such fees, consider applying for one that doesn’t. Capital One waives foreign transaction fees on all of its cards, according to financial comparison site NerdWallet. Other cards that waive such fees, and which offer rich travel rewards, include Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, Chase Sapphire Preferred and BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card.

Whichever card you use, call the issuer to let it know the dates you’ll be abroad. Otherwise your issuer may shut down your account for suspicious activity. Carry a backup card (and alert its issuer) in case your primary account is compromised or mistakenly blocked.

When you need local currency, the best way to get it is often from a bank ATM. Travel guru Rick Steves, who spends a few months in Europe each year and primarily uses cash, suggests you avoid “independent” ATMs run by companies such as Travelex, Euronet and Forex because of their often-high fees. Bank ATMs in Europe typically don’t charge usage fees, although your home bank may levy a $2 to $5 flat fee plus a foreign transaction fee of 1% or more for every withdrawal.

You can minimize usage fees by making infrequent but large withdrawals. Or you can use a checking account that doesn’t charge fees. Charles Schwab’s high-yield checking account offers unlimited ATM fee rebates worldwide with no foreign transaction fees, according to Brian Kelly of the travel rewards site ThePointsGuy.com. If you have an account with Capital One 360, the online bank, ATM fees are waived and the bank absorbs MasterCard’s 1% foreign transaction fee. USAA Bank charges a 1% foreign transaction fee but doesn’t charge a fee for the first 10 ATM withdrawals.

If you do find yourself carrying a lot of cash abroad, consider bringing a money belt that tucks under your clothes. That’s generally more secure than carrying money in a wallet or purse. And have a great trip!