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]

Saving On Travel: New Reasons To Use A Travel Agent, Wisely

travel agent

We have debated the notion of using a travel agent in a number of ways here over the years. The general consensus of opinion verifies some of the strategies you may very well use to book airline tickets, rental cars, hotel rooms and more. But a recent move by a major cruise line should drive home the notion that using a travel professional, be it an online source or an actual agent we have come to know personally, can maximize travel savings.

Internet Cruise Brokers, the used car salesmen of travel, are on the way out.
Recently, Norwegian Cruise Line put travel agencies trolling for clients through low-price website CruiseCompete on notice: shape up or ship out.

“Norwegian Cruise Line has severed ties with CruiseCompete, a website where travel agents bid for consumers’ cruise business. The cruise line has also warned its agent partners that participating in CruiseCompete is a breach of contract,” notes travel expert Fran Golden in a recent article on Travel Market Report.

For those unfamiliar with CruiseCompete, it’s a website where consumers can go, enter the ship and sailing date they have in mind, then wait for travel agents to bid for their business, often giving up a portion of their commission in order to offer the lowest bid.

“What’s wrong with that?” one might ask. Plenty.travel agentBuying Cruise Travel Is Not Like Buying Air
First, buying cruise travel is not like buying an airline ticket, flying from point A to point B. In that case, as long as the flight gets us there and brings us back, the lowest price is probably the best choice. An online service like Airfarewatchdog can help direct us to the best sources too.

But with cruise travel there are a great many other variables to consider. Take the passengers personal cruise history, for example. Carefully considered by a travel professional that has the passenger’s best interests in mind, that “low price” offered through bidding may not be the best option.

Paying a bit more might take advantage of a past-guest promotion that has an end value far greater than that “low price” bid, giving onboard credit, free drinks, free prepaid gratuities or other valuable benefits.

Down The Road Come The Benefits
A stronger reason for using a travel professional is what happens throughout the life of the booking. This goes for all types of travel, not just cruises. The Internet travel broker is busy bidding as many potential clients as possible to yield a net profit that will pay the bills. They have little, if any, time to consider promotions, deals and offers that come up after the initial booking.

A travel professional does.

In the case of cruises, even booking directly with the cruise line will not yield the potential benefits of booking with a travel professional that we have spent the time to develop a good business relationship with. No cruise line will notify you, “Hey, a new promotion has started that will lower your price by hundreds.” It just does not happen.

An alert travel pro considers the initial sale as just the start of the process, works your booking throughout its life and follows up after sailing. They are investing time in their clients and will gladly work with the cruise line to lower the fare when some new promotion comes up that applies.

And it’s not all about saving money. Do you need/have the right documentation to enter Russia? Which is the best choice for travel insurance? Is it safe to travel in Egypt? These are questions our travel professional will have the specific answers for and have time to be sure we have that information.

Same Song, Different Singer, New Lyrics
But the argument for using a travel agent is basically the same as we have been reporting for years. In 2011’s “Travel Agents: The Dinosaur You Might Just Need,” Gadling sang a similar song, noting, “A travel agent is ‘your friend’ in the travel business. They are your friend who knows what is going on in the travel industry.” That is still true now.

What is different now and builds a stronger case for using a travel agent is how cruise lines are operating. As they continue to differentiate themselves from one another, cruise line pricing has become more sophisticated, offering more fare codes that have more requirements and qualifiers than ever. Keeping up with pricing policies alone can be a full-time job, something click-to-buy options fail miserably at considering and consumers simply don’t have the time to do effectively.

Try It For Yourself
The idea of using a real travel agent as opposed to an Internet cruise broker is going to take an investment of time. Finding a good agent can be as simple as following the recommendation of a trusted friend or relative. But what if we don’t know anyone who uses a travel agent? Where can we find a good one?

A good start for finding a travel agent would be your local Better Business Bureau or even a local sourcing option like Angie’s List. Good search results for a travel agency would be ones with plenty of activity but very few, if any, complaints. Another option would be the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) website, which lists agencies and the agents associated with them along with their credentials. Their Cruise Expert Finder brings a list of local agencies.

To drive home the value of an agent, go to a price comparison website like CruiseCompete, pick a ship and sailing date at random, and begin the bidding process. At the same time, call a local agency, tell them you are trying to decide between using an agency to handle all your travel needs or simply using online booking sources to plan your travel. See what happens.

Odds are very high that the end result will be the beginning of a beneficial relationship yielding great savings over your lifetime and a richer travel experience too. Travel agents have a lot of “been there, done that” experience, helpful destination information and contacts of their own to share.

Not to discount online tools altogether in the travel buying equation – an online service similar to Airfarewatchdog called CruiseFish, which is independent of cruise lines or travel agencies, can help. CruiseFish is a price, stateroom and cruise monitoring system that does all the browsing for you and sends email alerts when prices change. The $.99 per listing fee may very well be worth the peace of mind buyers gain from knowing a third-party source is also looking out for them.

Yes, doing business with a live travel agent can yield the best results.
Yes too, stacking the deck in your favor can also be beneficial.




[Photo credit – Flickr user elmada]

Money-Saving Strategies From Other Places That Work For Airports Too

Money-Saving Strategies

As much as we might not want to admit it, many of us enjoy the whole process of flying. Maybe it’s the thrill of the hunt when exploring a complex matrix of flights, airlines and prices. Perhaps exercising the survival skills that find power for electronic devices we bring along satisfies a primitive need. Whatever the reason, we like to fly. Some travelers like to fly so much that we spend more than we need to. A good battle plan combined with budgetary prowess learned from other activities can go a long way.

Eat before arriving
Frugal grocery store shoppers know that arriving hungry can lead to impulse buying, and most don’t even eat what they select until later. Arriving at the airport famished, maybe a bit earlier than normal to make up for sequester-induced lines, has trouble written all over it. Airport food courts are grounds for impulse buys. Forty pounds ago, I used that as an excuse to overdose on food I would have had serious guilt issues with if consumed elsewhere. A decent airport app like FlySmart can offer healthy suggestions.Bring an empty water bottle
Heading out on a hike, camping or just the drive to work, eco- and budget-friendly travelers bring a reusable water bottle. Head to the airport and many forget or don’t know that the same reusable bottle will indeed make it through the security screening process. In most cases, the $4 bottle of water at the conveniently located kiosk by the boarding gate costs more than a whole bunch of reusable water bottles. Concerned about the taste of that tap water found after screening? Go crazy and buy a self-filtering water bottle.

Let an expert help
This could be the “insert name of travel agent here” part of the story and, for many, that might be a good idea. Those comfortable with using an attorney for legal matters, an accountant for taxes or even a good mechanic for auto repairs could easily buy into that notion. For air travel, many of the sources we feature here like AirFareWatchdog, Kayak and others can go a long way to maximizing savings on airline fares – obviously a big ticket item in the whole scheme of things. Better yet, ask a local travel blogger based out of your hometown airport. Odds are they have it down to a science.

Leave time for the satellite lot
When going to a concert, major sporting event or local convention center, penny-wise drivers park remotely, realizing that convenience equals higher prices. Parking close to the terminal at almost any airport will cost dearly compared to the price of a secure, remote lot. AirportParking boasts savings of up to 70% off the price of terminal parking, and allows reservations and payment in advance. In Orlando, for example, terminal parking is $10 per day; remote parking from a number of lots is less than half the price.

The whole idea of applying money-saving strategies learned from other activities to air travel comes with a bonus too. We’re already comfortable with the process so applying does not require learning a new skill or forging a new path where no one has gone before.

Looking for some other money-saving ideas to use when at the airport? Check this video:


[Photo credit – Flickr user Grant Wickes]

Save On Road Trip Expenses With The Right Credit Card

road trip

Planning a road trip anytime soon? Odds are the price of gas is a consideration if not a major concern. As gas prices continue to rise, travelers are looking for new ways to save. Tuning up the car, using smartphone apps to find the lowest price around, inflating tires properly and other money-saving measures can help. Using the right credit card can gain big savings too.

The current national average is $3.78 per gallon – nearly 14 percent higher than it was at the beginning of the year – meaning that gas prices exceed $4 per gallon in some states. Having the right credit card can help. But which to choose? Of the two types of credit cards – gas station-affiliated cards and generic gas cards- there are more than 1000 offers out there right now.

“The credit card market continues to offer surprisingly lucrative gas rewards without requiring consumers to fill up at one particular station or another,” says credit card authority Odysseas Papadimitriou, former Capital One executive and CEO of Card Hub, a credit card rating organization that just released its list of the Best Gas Credit Cards.

According to Card Hub, generic cards used for gas can produce some of the best savings.

The best generic cards?
Pentagon Federal Credit Union Platinum Rewards Card – This one offers those who pay at the pump points equivalent to 5 percent cash back on gas at any station plus 3 percent cash back at supermarkets and 1 percent on other purchases. While the card has no annual fee, belonging to PenFed Credit Union costs $15 and members do not have to be affiliated with the military.

Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express – This card gives 3 percent cash back at gas stations, 6 percent at supermarkets and 1 percent everywhere else. The $75 annual fee is offset by a $150 initial bonus for spending $1,000 in the first three months.

TrueEarnings Card from American Express – Costco members get 3 percent cash back on gas purchases up to $4,000 (1 percent thereafter), 2 percent at restaurants, 2 percent on travel and 1 percent on everything else.

But what about gas station-sponsored cards?

“When it comes to choosing a station-specific gas credit card, it’s important to remember that value is inherently conditional,” says Papadimitriou. “In other words, you’ll have to get gas at the right station and oftentimes spend a certain amount each month or year in order to qualify.”

The best gas station cards include:

Marathon Credit Card – This brings a 25-cent rebate, but the offer has a catch. That $.25 is for each gallon of Marathon gas purchased during months a cardholder charges at least $1,000, $0.15/gallon for spending between $500 and $999.99 and $0.05 for spending less than $500. This card does not have an annual fee or an initial bonus.

Chevron & Texaco Credit Card – This card provides a $0.30/gallon, up-front discount on Chevron and Texaco gas for the first 60 days after opening the account. After that, you get $0.20/gallon off during months that you spend more than $1,000 in qualifying purchases and $0.10/gallon off when you spend $300-$1,000. Qualifying purchases include most charges made with your card with a maximum of $300 in discounts each calendar year.

Card Hub also notes other ways to save on gas, like shopping at certain grocery stores. Kroger, Safeway and others offer discounts at affiliated gas station chains based on how much you spend at their stores. For example, spending $100 at Safeway will save you $2 on the next 20 gallons of ExxonMobil gas you buy.

That idea is especially powerful when travelers combine it with the respective station’s co-branded credit cards.

Looking for other ways to save on gas? Check out this video:


[Photo credit – Flickr user little peppercorn]

Cost of travel soaring but savings possible

cost of travelDetermining the true cost of travel takes some effort. What we pay for airfare, hotels, and meals away from home are elements of a budget we want to pin down as much as possible, but that is not always easy. Experts know the cost of travel is rising, but also offer explanations and suggestions on what we can do about it.

Paying attention to prices at the pump, we need not hear from an expert to know that jet fuel prices are probably increasing as well.

“You’ll see gradual increases and then a much bigger jump in April and May when people start shopping for the summer travel season,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of travel website FareCompare.com.

Still, there are ways to save on airline tickets, cruise fares, hotels and more. One trick, normally seen as risky business, is to book later rather than earlier.

“For those of you who are flexible with your travel, it can pay to wait until the last minute,” Steven Fischer, vice president of cruise development at Travel Holdings, Inc. told MarketWatch. “That’s when airlines and cruises need to unload inventory, so stay on top of deals through last minute booking sites like LastMinuteCruises.com and LastMinuteTravel.com. Get a great deal and you don’t have to book 6 months in advance.”Playing it smart when checking into a hotel can help, too. TravelSavingsNut, a website dedicated to providing money saving advice, offers tips and ideas on how to save money when traveling.

“Even if you have a reservation, you may want to consider, before disclosing your reservation to the desk clerk, asking what rooms they have available and the price,” says TravelSavingsNut on its website. “If plenty of rooms are available, you may be quoted a rate lower than your reservation rate for the same type of room. If so, mention to the clerk that the rate is lower and ask that they honor the lower rate. They should be more than willing to do this.

On the road, eating is a different matter, but USA Today Travel has some ideas to help here, too. Travel expert Pele Omori is a freelance writer specializing in travel and culinary subjects. She has traveled and lived internationally since she was age three and though she likes the idea of cooking when we can, Omori has some other suggestions:

“Stay at a place with a complimentary breakfast; otherwise, eat breakfast at a local bakery. Eating baked goods from local bakeries often costs less than eating at a restaurant or a hotel. Ask locals, such as the hotel staff, about bakeries in the area.

If you are looking to sample the local cuisine, eat lunch at a restaurant instead of dinner. Lunch at most restaurants costs considerably less than dinner at the same eatery. Cut costs further by sharing an entree or having a light meal that consists of soup, salad, or an appetizer.”


We may not be able to do much about the prices charged by airlines, hotels, and restaurants, but taking a step back to consider alternative ways of looking at travel expenses can often make an out of control budget more manageable.

Money Saving Travel Tips from Jeanenne Tornatore