Financial

Wire transfers 

We have five rental places during our big trip. Most of these rental places have required a banking deposit and not a deposit paid with a credit card.

At first I worried how to do this without incurring high transfer fees. I eventually found the website Transferwise. This site is great when you need to send someone money in a different currency. Recently I sent around $750 USD and the fee was only around $5.00. If I had paid by credit card I would have incurred a $14 fee, so the transfer by bank account has made things easy.

I get the feeling that people in Australia and New Zealand are used to bank-to-bank transactions. In the US we seem used to credit card transactions. Another thing I have noticed is that if you do paying credit card, most places assess an additional 2% fee, so it is better to do the bank-to-bank transactions instead of paying by credit card.

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Keeping costs low – Vacation Rental by Owner (vrbo.com)

If we are going to be at a destination for three nights or longer I look for a rental property on Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO.com). Usually I start by looking for a two bedroom, two bathroom place. If prices seem to high then I can lower my standards to two bedroom, one bathroom or even a one bedroom, one bathroom as long as there is a sleep sofa.

I usually start my search by plugging my dates and location into their website. Then I start adding filters such as properties with wifi and washing machines. Next I start going through the listings. I am prone to contact a place that has had lots of reviews as that tells me this is an experienced renter and the property probably has everything I need.

One thing I have realized is listing price might be a low amount. Depending on when you go, you should expect actual prices to be higher. For example prices are typically higher over holiday weekends, or the summer for a beach rental. Generally you will get better rates if you stay for a week. And expect that there will also be a cleaning fee tacked on to the rate. Finally, there is the hassle of needing to coordinate time to pick up the keys and check out.

Despite the price fluctuations, cleaning fees, and key hassles, I still find these properties to be a great deal. We once stayed in downtown Charleston in a two bedroom, three bathroom, two story rental for less than what we would have paid for a hotel. We stayed at the top of an overlook in Pittsburgh in a two bedroom, once again cheaper than we would have paid for a hotel room without an incredible view. In Sedona, Arizona we stayed in an awesome three bedroom house surrounded by amazing views. In Santa Fe, New Mexico we had another amazing house in the downtown area.

With our upcoming trip we have two VRBO.com rentals. Both are two bedroom, two bathrooms and both have washing machines. One is in the historical area of Florence – a block from their famous duomo and walking distance to sites such as the Accademia and Uffizi center. In Rome our lodging is right next to a metro stop, a large museum, and a block from a large park. My husband and I can go to the museum without the kids if we want (by taking turns) and we can all run around in the park if we want. Both of these places are cheaper than a small hotel room.

Other advantages of renting an apartment/home versus a hotel room include access to washing machines without having to go to a laundromat. This enables us to pack super light. A huge advantage for my husband and I is having the extra space and separate sleeping area from the kids. Another advantage is that if we don’t feel like going out to eat we can just cook something on our own or have take out delivered and we don’t have to eat that take out on a bed.

So, the next time you go on an adventure and need lodging for more than two nights I highly recommend checking a site such as VRBO.com or Airbnb.com (I have never used that site). We have had great luck with VRBO.com (and hopefully I have not jinxed it with this post).

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Next Planned Vacation – Drum Roll Please…..

To my faithful blog followers – we’ve got a big trip coming up next month.  The family is heading to Italy.

I wrote a post a while ago about researching flights before buying them, and I just want to reiterate the importance of this.  When we’ve gone abroad I have now gotten in the habit of booking airline tickets first before I start making hotel and train plans.

I first approached my husband about going to Italy in September when I saw a cheap fare on US Airways out of Philadelphia.  By the time I convinced my husband to agree to Italy, that fare was gone.  He also said he would prefer if we flew in an upgraded economy ticket (one with extra leg room).  I knew I spoiled him in August when we were in the exit row going to and from the United Kingdom.

Well, I really wanted to go Italy, but I also didn’t want to spend an arm-and-a-leg on airline tickets.  In my head I had a set budget per ticket I was willing to pay.  I thought now that I needed the upgraded economy tickets that there was no way I’d find a good fare that I was willing to pay.

After a couple of hours of research – I found our magic fare.  We are flying Delta, connecting in JFK and arriving in Milan.  Milan was the magic location in Italy that was at least $400 cheaper per ticket than Rome.  If we took a train up to JFK we could have saved an additional $150 per person…but getting to JFK via Amtrak is slightly trickier than getting to Newark on Amtrak…so this time I opted to fly out of the DC area.  The downside of this means we now need to get from and to Milan to other places in Italy.  But the positives outweigh the negatives.  I love train travel (especially in Europe).  And I was initially disappointed with our originally anticipated itinerary because I did not think I would get to see the Last Supper Painting, but now we will be in Milan with enough time to see the painting (blog post to follow soon on that booking) and possibly their Cathedral.

Anyway, back to booking airfare early.  Another advantage of booking early – the seats that we have booked are the “green seats” on seat guru.  I do believe that the longer you wait to book tickets, the fewer “great” seats you can choose from.

Finally, there’s also the benefit that the earlier you book, the more likely your airline schedule will be affected.  This could be a negative, but has more potential to be a positive.  We’ve had our schedule affected three or four times now.  Twice I’ve had to call and request different flights, but those flight changes haven’t cost me a thing because the schedule changed affecting our itinerary.  When we went out west to Arizona and New Mexico a few years ago I had been dreading our eight AM flight with a three year old and five year old, but then there was a schedule change and I was able to switch to a ten AM flight instead – at no additional cost.  When I had initially booked our tickets the fare for that flight was too costly to book.

When I know I want to travel somewhere I don’t start looking at air fare costs when I’m ready to book that ticket.  I start looking months and even years in advance.  Other destinations I will periodically query are Alaska, China, New Zealand, and Australia.  I still think it will be a while before we get to those places, but I like to keep an eye on air fare trends.  That way when I see a great fare, I know it is a great fare and feel good about my decision to pay that price.

So – stay tuned for additional blog posts about our upcoming trip.  I’ve also listed our expected expenses in an Excel sheet and after adding everything up – our costs for airfare, lodging, and transportation for four people are LESS than the cost for ONE person to participate in a tour such as National Geographic Family Expeditions.  Those tour prices don’t even include air fare, where as my calculations do.

Categories: Airplanes, Financial | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Avoiding foreign currency transaction fees

This morning I was reading the travel section in my local newspaper. A reader wrote in and asked the best way to avoid foreign transaction fees. The response was that “once you’re in Europe it will be hard to totally avoid fees because you’ll either be paying extra to withdraw money at the ATM or for the foreign transaction fee with your credit card (unless yours doesn’t have one).”

I thought this response was awful. I am not planning on paying ANY foreign transaction fees abroad. To start with there are a couple of credit card companies that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. Two of these are Capital One and Andrews Federal Credit Union. I have both of these and I used both to purchase train tickets in Europe. When my statements came in the mail neither statement had foreign transaction fees. The exchange rate listed was pretty close to the published exchange rate for the day as well. (Side note: I preferred how Andrews Credit Union displays the exchange rate on the statement). Also – the Andrews Federal Credit card is a chip-and-pin card which are more common in Europe anyways.

In regards to the ATM fees – I am pretty sure Capital One does not charge foreign exchange fees for their ATM cards…but I still need to double check that. My younger brother informed me last month that Charles Schwab is a great bank. They refund ATM fees and they also do not charge foreign transaction fees. Double win. They also appear to have great customer service. I am planning to try them out while we are abroad.

In conclusion – don’t let the big banks get free money by charging you foreign transaction fees or ATM fees. Take the time to research better options.

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Booking City Night Line tickets – is 6 AM too early for a drink?

This may be a long post, so I apologize in advance. I am going to try to add a lot of detail since I had trouble finding information on the Internet.

When I first looked into the City Night Line trains I learned that to get the best fare you could book your ticket and reservation 92 days in advance.  But what I couldn’t figure out was why it seemed like certain sleeper cars were already sold out 92 days in advance.  Then I finally realized you could book a sleeper reservation around 180 days in advance and then purchase your ticket separately.  Since we are traveling with a 4.5 year old and a 7 year old I did not want to take a chance that we would be stuck in seats and I decided to reserve an economy four person sleeper.  When I made this reservation the UK booking agent told me there would be a cancellation penalty of 15 Euros per person if I needed to cancel it.  That was okay with me.

This morning (at 6 AM Eastern time) I needed to purchase the ticket portion of the night train from Berlin to Munich.  On the City Night Line website (they are a part of Deutsche Bahn) it showed a four person economy sleeper car plus tickets was 261 Euros.  I had previously paid 188 Euros for the sleeper reservation.  Actually…I had paid that equivalent in pounds since I made the reservation with the UK Booking Center.  But to make things easier to follow I’m converting everything to Euro’s using today’s exchange rate.  Anyway,  that is a difference of 73 Euros that I should have needed to pay for the tickets since the Saver Fare was available.

So early this morning I call the UK booking number and I ask to purchase the tickets with my reservation.  The operator seemed kind of confused.  My theory is that the only people who actually reserve the sleeper cars are those with Eurail passes or German Rail passes, etc.  For them they already have the tickets and don’t need to get those at a later date.  Anyway he proceeds to tell me that it will be an additional 343 euros to purchase the tickets and would I like to do that right now.  I tell him that does not make sense because I can purchase a reservation plus tickets for 261 euros online.  He tells me that the reservation I have is for a fully-flexible ticket and as a result I must pay the extra amount. I then asked him if I have a fully flexible ticket, then can’t I cancel that ticket?  He said, “one moment please”.  When he returned he told me that I could cancel the tickets but it would cost 15 euro per ticket to cancel.  I told him to cancel the reservation and I would rebook it, online.  It was much cheaper for me to cancel this reservation, lose the equivalent of 60 euros and book the saver fare on the internet.

Why would I bother making a reservation for a four person sleeper car you ask?  Well, today marks 91 days until our night train.  When I looked to see what was available there are no longer any four person sleeper cars available.  They don’t have as many of these as they have doubles or singles.  So those go pretty fast.  I was lucky that I got one on a saver fare.  We could have probably done two doubles if necessary, but this is our first overnight train and I want to share the experience as a family.  I also wasn’t sure what would be available 92 days out.  We are traveling to Europe in the summer when lots of other people travel.  I felt much more comfortable knowing I had a four person sleeper reserved than taking a risk that one would not be available when it was time to book.   Additionally, if I had not been able to purchase the saver fare then at this point it might have made sense to purchase a German Rail pass since we’ll be on multiple train trips throughout our trip.  But as long as I can buy all of those tickets on a saver fare the rail passes are not worth it.

I am thankful to have this reservation done with..though I am still waiting for the credit to show back on my credit card!  Worse case I can dispute it with my credit card company if it never appears.  All of our future reservations can be done on the Internet.  Hopefully no complications will occur with those.  To add to the complication of these reservations I had to constantly convert euro’s to pounds to dollars.  Not fun.  The man is quoting me prices in pounds but on the Deutsche Bahn website train prices are in euros and I am used to dealing with dollars.

Finally – as a side note – when I went to book our new reservations and tickets the first credit card I used did not go through due to a fraud alert.  I called that credit card company after making my purchase with another card and told them as a result I used another credit card provider. My credit card company provided me with a $25 credit without me even asking!  So it makes that 60 cancellation fee I paid feel like a smaller cancellation fee.

Categories: Berlin, City Night Line, Deutsche Bahn, Financial, Munich, Trains | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chip and pin credit card arrived

On March 26th I posted about obtaining a chip and pin credit card. About a little less than a month later and my card has now arrived. Now I am wondering if I should use the card to purchase our train tickets. I will have to see which card gets the better exchange rate. My intention for getting the card was more for just in case we ran into a situation where we needed one. I am excited though to have one now 🙂

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Chip and Pin credit card?

As I read up on Europe I have learned that a lot of places use a Chip and Pin technology in their credit cards. This means that you enter your credit card pin number after you insert your credit card. In the US though our credit cards have a magnetic strip. There is no pin to enter. I called my bank yesterday to find out if they were going to issue this type of credit card in the future and they said they have no plans to right now (though their website has information on them…)

My research indicated that we would probably be fine with just our standard US credit cards. I found that places we are most likely to run into trouble would be toll booths, gas stations, and train stations. However, we are planning using the train system and we are planning on renting a car – which will mean gas and tolls. So I thought it made sense to obtain a Chip and Pin credit card just in case.

The credit card I applied for is considered a Chip and Pin credit card but it will first act as a Chip and Signature credit card unless the place of business cannot handle that sort of transaction. Then the credit card would be a Chip and Pin credit card where I need to enter our PIN number to use it. Additionally, I found a Chip and Pin credit card issuer who does not charge an annual fee and does not charge a foreign transaction fee.

I’m hoping to travel more internationally after this trip too. So it made sense to get one of these cards. From what I’ve heard though sometimes it can take a while to actually receive your card. The company (Andrews Federal Credit Union – anyone can join) I went through to get our card apparently requires a lot of documentation before you receive the card. So I think you should plan on applying for a Chip and Pin card at least a month before your trip. I sent my application in today. We’ll have to see when I finally get the card.

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