Two Great Travel Apps You Will Actually Use

travel apps
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New smartphone travel apps are released every day. Keeping up with which ones work can burn time better spent on planning, dreaming or, better yet, actually going some place. Many travelers are appaholics who just can’t get enough. They test, load and organize pertinent apps specifically for each trip. Others want an uncluttered home screen or just travel in a more unplugged way. They only want apps they will use frequently. Here are two of those.

Shall I go on that hike right now?
Dark Sky is a simple weather app that uses state-of-the-art weather forecasting to predict weather at the user’s location for the next 60 minutes. I ran across Dark Sky looking for a good radar application to track spring storms that pop up quickly and might be coming our way. The radar feature is simple and easy to use, but the near, live forecast feature makes this one an app travelers will use frequently.Too many apps?
Passbook, the feature, is an iPhone iOS 6 exclusive and not actually an app at all. This must-use travel feature keeps boarding passes, loyalty cards, retail coupons, movie tickets and more all in one app-like place. I keep this one on my home screen because it also retains boarding passes in history for easy “did I get my miles out of that?” checking later.

To grab all that data, Passbook taps apps from airlines, movie theaters, retail places and more. Another app that works with Passbook, Squarewallet, is making fumbling for cash or cards a thing of the past. By storing your card info then presenting it, along with a photo of you and your signature at an ever-increasing number of retail places, Squarewallet is simplifying paying and eliminating clutter on smartphone home screens.

No iPhone? No problem. There is indeed an app for that too. Passbook Viewer for Android will do the trick. Check this video for more about passbook:

Currency Exchange: What You Use Matters

currency exchange
craigfinlay/Flickr

To International travelers, the name Travelex should sound familiar. They are the largest airport currency exchange operator in the world. But a recent currency exchange study comparing the cost of using Travelex, some of the largest U.S. banks and credit cards revealed what experts already knew.

CardHub’s 2013 Currency Exchange Study compared the cost of the currency exchange services offered by 15 of the largest banks in the U.S. as well as Visa, MasterCard and Travelex. The study proved that using a no foreign fee credit card is the way to go on spending internationally. Banks charge an average of exchange rate of 7.1% and Travelex charges 15.5%.

Worried about using a credit card outside of the U.S.? Don’t be. Credit cards also provide fraud protection for just that reason.

“Even if a consumer uses a credit card with foreign fees – the average foreign transaction fee is 2.24%, according to CardHub’s latest Credit Card Landscape Report – he’ll still save 4.86% on currency conversion relative to the services offered by banks and 13.26% compared to airport currency exchange providers,” said CardHub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou in a HeraldOnline report.

The best banks for currency conversion? The CardHub study indicates Northern Trust and Harris Bank lead the pack as they did in the 2012 and 2011 editions of the study while U.S. Bank and SunTrust hold the bottom two spots. On average though, banks are better than Travelex, saving an average 8.4%.Still, many travelers do not feel like they are fully packed for an international trip without some local currency from the country they are visiting. They want to arrive with local cash for a cab, food or supplies they may not have been able to bring on the plane.

“It’s just one of those things that have been traditionally recommended,” says Papadimitriou. “But with the banking system becoming increasingly digital, it makes sense that the easiest way to buy things in a foreign currency is with plastic.”

Credit cards are good. No foreign fee cards are better. Still, some cash will probably be necessary along the way tipping or making purchases in places that do not take cards. With that in mind, Papadimitriou recommends a debit card with low international ATM withdrawal fees but warns travelers to avoid dynamic currency conversion, when a merchant offers to convert your purchase total from the native currency to U.S. dollars.

It might seem as though that merchant in Venice is trying to be help make sense of how much a purchase really costs, in our own currency, but “they could be looking for an excuse to apply a high exchange rate and squeeze a bit more money out of you. It’s best not to find out, especially when you can use your phone or a small pocket calculator to make quick conversions and better understand how much things cost,” says Papadimitriou.

As long as we’re talking about financial security when traveling, what about pickpockets? Well, the days of those villains are ending. In this video we see that all it takes now is a smartphone to steal your credit card information.

Electronic Pickpocketers 'Steal' Credit Cards Using NFC

Travel Credit Cards Promise Savings, But At What Cost?

travel credit cardsTravel Credit cards that offer a sign-up bonus or cash back, or accumulate points that can be translated into savings on travel are surely worth a look. If just changing from one card to another will bring free flights, hotel stays, car rentals or funds to buy gear, why would any budget-minded traveler not do that? Often, we have to look beyond the headline to get to the real story.

Cardhub is back this week with an updated list of the Best Travel Credit Cards for 2013 featuring the best deals, selected from more than 1,000 different offers. Hoping to “help consumers save as summer vacation planning gets into full swing,” Cardhub told Gadling in an email this week that “the right credit card can save consumers hundreds of dollars on summer travel.”

That claim looks to be valid too. Switching to the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, for example, will bring a 40,000-point reward bonus.

Thinking along the lines of airline points, that’s about what it takes for a round-trip ticket to Europe from North America. True, but airline points are not what we get with this offer. Those 40,000 points are redeemable for $500 in travel accommodations booked through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards program or a $400 statement credit. To get that, cardholders are required to spend $3000 during the first three months the card is open.Still, the most conservative result, $400 credit on the account, is a nice payday for doing very little work. But if transferring a balance from an existing account, there is a $150 charge, which eats away at the gain. Traveling with the card brings some advantages though. Chase charges no foreign transaction fees for purchases made abroad and there is no annual fee for the first year ($95 after that).

Some other factors to consider include the effect of trying to get this card on your credit score, even if declined. Planning on a major purchase in the near future, like a home mortgage? Real estate expert Anthony Gilbert lists applying for new credit cards and closing old ones as two of the six top things not to do before applying for a mortgage in a RealFX article.

“Too many credit inquiries over a relatively short period of time, are never a good thing for your credit score,” says Gilbert, adding “when you close any credit card, you may easily, yet innocently raise your “debt to credit limit ratio” – which can preclude a mortgage approval, or cause you to pay a higher interest rate.”

Speaking of credit score, you’ll need a pretty good one for the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. The people at CreditKarma say the average score accepted by Chase is 730, considered excellent by those who track such things.

That’s not to say credit card savings are not out there. The $0 fraud liability guarantees, the lowest possible currency conversion rates and complimentary rental car insurance coverage offered by many cards can add up fast.


[Photo credit - Flickr user theMaykazine]

4 Big Travel Fears And How To Overcome Them

When I meet people who tell me they’ve never flown on an airplane or stepped foot outside their home state, I’m always a little taken aback. In this day and age when travel is so accessible, affordable and commonplace, it’s amazing that there are still so many travel virgins out there.

Now, of course, if these folks didn’t want to travel, or were unable to afford it, that would be understandable. But it’s not lack of desire or means that seems to hold so many people back. Instead, it’s fear – fear of heading out into the great unknown and fear of what will go wrong when they get there. And this fear is crippling enough to stop them from living out their travel dreams.

But the good news for travel newbies is that fears can be overcome. It’s just a matter of understanding what you’re really scared of and learning to manage your concerns. Here are the four biggest fear-related excuses I hear from would-be travelers and tips on how to cope with them.

Going abroad is dangerous


This is probably the most common excuse I hear for not traveling. In fact, the idea that foreign places are dangerous is so pervasive that many people not only stop themselves from traveling, but they try to prevent others from doing so as well. “Are you really planning to go there? Do you think it’s wise? Have you heard the news reports about xyz?” are all refrains I’ve heard over and over. But here’s the thing: life is dangerous and bad things can happen to you anywhere. Despite this, we tend to be afraid of the big, catastrophic events that are actually quite rare (such as our plane crashing, or being kidnapped abroad), but less afraid of more common dangers (such as car accidents) that happen all the time.

So how can you quash this fear? First, do some research. People are often afraid of travel because they don’t know what to really expect. In other words, fear of going abroad is really just fear of the unknown. By learning about your destination, you can start to feel more comfortable with the idea of visiting it. You might even be surprised to learn that your destination is less dangerous than where you live.

Also, remember that news reports tend to focus mostly on negative events, giving you a disproportionate image of how dangerous a country really is. Even in countries that do have genuine problems, not all parts of the country are necessarily dangerous. So just because you saw a story about a shooting or hostage situation in one city doesn’t mean the popular tourist town you’ll be visiting has the same problems. The best way to know for sure is to read detailed travel advisories.

At the end of the day, as long as you use common sense (avoid dark alleys, keep an eye on your belongings and so on) you’ll be just fine.

I won’t be able to communicate my needs

If all you have in your language arsenal is a bit of high school Spanish, then it’s normal to feel anxious about heading to a country where you won’t be able to understand a word of the local lingo. But of all the fears on this list, not being able to communicate is probably the most unfounded. Remember, English is widely spoken around the world, and even those who don’t speak it may have enough of a basic understanding to be able to help you out. And the people you’re most likely to come into contact with – those working in the hospitality industry – will almost certainly know some English.

If you’re still worried, it might be a good idea to prepare yourself by learning a few key words and phrases in the local language. Things like, “where is the toilet?”, “I want chicken/beef/pork,” “I want a single/return ticket” and so on, always come in handy. Of course, “please” and “thank you” also go a long way when you’re seeking help from locals.

Other ways around the language barrier include carrying phrase books, flash cards or picture books bearing images of things you commonly need when traveling. You could also try using gestures or miming to get your point across – it may feel silly but it works.

At the end of the day, there are very few places in the world where you’ll struggle to get by without the local language and if you’re a first-time traveler, chances are these places are not on your itinerary anyway.

What if I get sick or hurt?

Falling ill or being injured abroad are unlikely but not altogether impossible scenarios. So the key to getting around this fear is to be prepared. Firstly, recognize that most health problems people have when traveling are minor – according to this list of the most common travel diseases, diarrhea is the number one ailment. Carrying a small first-aid kit with a few common over-the-counter meds should get you through most situations, but if not, remember there are pharmacies just about everywhere.

Of course, a stomach bug is not what most people are really worried about. It’s the bigger health emergencies that could end in a visit to a scary foreign hospital that gets travelers anxious. But it’s worth noting that many international health systems are better than you think. India, for example, has earned a reputation for its highly experienced heart surgeons, while Thailand is top a destination for medical tourism because of its internationally accredited facilities. Moreover, many developing countries often have large expat communities, so sleek hospitals with highly-trained English speaking staff have sprung up to serve them. If you have a pre-existing condition or are simply anxious, find out where these expat-oriented hospitals are and keep a list of them when traveling.

Lastly, get up to date on all your vaccinations and make sure you have good health insurance that will cover you while you’re abroad.

What if I lose my passport/credit cards/wallet?

Losing your documents is a nuisance, for sure, but it doesn’t have to ruin your whole trip. I once had an ATM swallow my debit card at a bus station in Bolivia … 15 minutes before I was about to board a bus for a distant city. What did I do? Well, I wanted to be sure that no one would figure out a way to retrieve my card from the machine and use it, so I borrowed a cellphone from a kind passerby, called the bank and canceled my card right there on the spot. They promised to express post a new card and a few days later, it was in my hands. Life certainly went on despite the little hiccup, especially because I had other cards to fall back on.

Rogue ATMs aren’t the only threat to your valuables, in fact, pick-pocketing is much more likely. Still, this doesn’t have to be a trip-ending nightmare at all. Just be sure not to carry all your credit cards and cash in your wallet everyday – it’s best to leave most of it in your hotel safe and only tote around what you’ll need for the day. Should the worst happen, call your credit card company right away, cancel the lost card, and they’ll express a new one out to you.

When it comes to passports, again, don’t carry it around unless you have a good reason to. If it does go MIA, you’ll have a much easier time getting a replacement passport if you’ve made copies of it. Keep one copy with you and leave another with a trusted friend back home, just to cover all bases. Your nearest embassy or consulate should be able to help you out from there.

At the end of the day, remember that if the trip really turns out to be as horrible as you imagined, you can always turn around and come home. However, chances are, once you take those first steps and get going, you’ll discover all the wonderful things about life on the road and want to stay. If anything, you’ll probably wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

What kinds of fears stop you from traveling? Have you found ways of managing them? Let us know below!

[Photo credits: Flickr users cvander; shock264; Fields of View; gwire; swimparallel]

Why A Cash-Back Card Is Better Than An Airline Miles Card

For frequent travelers, it’s the Holy Grail: a free flight, a free upgrade, the ability to say, “Oh, this? I got it with my airline miles.”

But when push comes to shove, are credit cards that give you airline miles really worth it?

Let’s go point by point.

Value For Your Money
Running the math requires making a few assumptions, but here’s a rough sketch.

Option A: Let’s say your travel card gives you a mile per dollar you spend. Let’s also say that it takes 25,000 miles to get a free round-trip domestic U.S. flight, which is the going rate at airlines like American and United. Obviously, the dollar value of a domestic flight will vary, but for argument’s sake, let’s call it roughly $500.

To earn the 25,000 miles you need, you’d have to spend $25,000. If that flight is normally worth $500, you’re getting back 2 cents on every dollar you spend.

Option B: Let’s say your cash-back card gives you 5% back on certain categories of spending, and 1% back on everything else, pretty standard for its card type. For the sake of our math, let’s say, on the whole, that averages out to roughly 3% back per month.

Instead of using miles, you want to earn $500 to buy your ticket the old-fashioned way. At an average of 3% back, you’d have to spend just under $16,700. That comes out to about 3 cents per dollar.

The outcome? If these numbers hold true, you’re getting better value with a cash-back card.

Of course, not all cards are created equal. If you found a travel card offering 2 or more miles per dollar, then that card would beat most cash-back cards. Try it out with your own numbers with these basic equations:

% money back = cost of your flight / amount you need to spend to earn that flight

From there, you can compare your percent back with a travel card to your percent back with a cash-back card.

Annual Fees
Most airline mile cards waive the annual fee the first year, but then have fees ranging from about $59 (for the Capital One Venture Card) to as much as $175 (for the AmEx Premier Rewards Gold Card).

Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, most of the top cash-back cards don’t have annual fees, ever.

Flexibility
This one’s obvious. If you travel a ton then, yes, you’ll probably want to use your reward to fund your next trip. But it doesn’t hurt for there to be no rules on how you can use your reward cash, and cash-back cards are literally that: your credit card company sends you a check in the mail and you can do with it whatever you please.

Sign-Up Rewards
A lot of travel cards offer initial sign-up bonuses, like 20,000-30,000 bonus points. Cash-back cards don’t do that. This is a huge, obvious perk of travel cards.

(My) Moral Of The Story
In my experience, the best way to maximize all these different factors is to sign up for a miles card, use it just enough to get the introductory offer, and then close the account before the end of the year to avoid paying an annual fee. Once you’ve earned the introductory miles, switch to a cash-back card, which is often better day-to-day money value and has better flexibility. (A quick caveat: for the sake of your credit score, try not to close more than one card in a year.)

Final verdict? A miles card sometimes, a cash-back card always.

[Image credit: Flickr user The Consumerist]