Travel Tweets Cue Thought, Savings

A great amount of travel information is available on twitter, much more than the standard 140 characters might elude to. Some is straightforward, a simple statement of facts, making who we follow the key to travel info riches. But sometimes, thought provoking travel tweets can prompt a search for knowledge that brings a learning element and along with it, more meaningful information.

@united, the Twitter handle for United Airlines, posed an interesting question recently

“Our longest nonstop flight is 8,065 miles. Do you know which two destinations it connects?#avgeek

Following up later, @united answered

“EWR to HKG is our longest nonstop route.

That made me wonder, “so is that the longest non-stop flight in the world?”

Not even close.

Singapore Airlines Flight 21 claims the title of having the longest regularly scheduled non-stop flight in the world. Also flying from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) Singapore Airlines uses an Airbus A340-500 for the 9,534 mile trip in about 18.5 hours flight time.

That knowledge led me to check that tag, #avgeek, for more. That search revealed a plethora of information about aviation-related topics including this video, posted by who explains some otherwise very technical information about jet design in an understandable way.

Of the video, @clemensv says

“I’m a software dude, not an aerospace engineer. But I’m an aviation geek with a bit of 1950s aerospace engineering envy. Because: unlimited money.

Therefore please excuse my amateur attempt at explaining the Area Rule of supersonic jet design completely without resorting to math but rather in the sand and showing it off on a F-86, F-102, F-106, and F-5.”

Perhaps better yet, tweets by travel-related service providers such as @Airfarewatchdog, @livingsocial, @ViatorTravel (or @ViatorGear), @SmarterTravel and others can make for big savings on travel and travel-related products.

[Photo credit – Flickr user eldh]

Start Your Travel Fund With The Change In Your Pocket (But Good Luck Finding A Bank To Count Your Coins)

Six gallon-size jugs of coins once bought me a one-way ticket to Cairo. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I’ve long had a curious little ritual before leaving the country that I’m very fond of. I’m a coin accumulator. You know those people who take several minutes to scrounge around for pennies while you are waiting impatiently behind them in line? That’s not me. If my bill comes to $1.01, I give the cashier $2, even if I have the penny in my pocket.

Why? Almost twenty years ago, I read about this change accumulation tactic and decided it would be an effortless way to start a travel fund. It’s hard to save money but it’s easy to accumulate coins. At the time I started my first coin collection, I was stuck in an office job in Chicago that I loathed. It felt good to accumulate coins and then dump them in big jugs in my room when I got home.

It made me feel a bit like a prisoner trying to gradually chip his way out of Alcatraz through some loose molding. I was plotting my escape and the growing coin collection was a measure of my progress.

After about two years of saving, I was ready to quit my job and take off for a four-month overland trip from Cairo to Shanghai. I had about $8,000 in savings in the six aforementioned jugs of coins. When I lugged all the coins to a local bank their coin counting machine made these loud, gurgling noises that were music to my ears. I was astonished when the clerk told me I was due $436. It was thirty bucks more than I needed to book a one-way ticket to Cairo.

Since that epic trip, I’ve continued to accumulate coins, though at a much slower rate of late because I like to use my credit cards to accumulate frequent flyer miles. Still, I relish going out to trade in my coins right before an international trip. I bring the cash I get back with me and it feels like extra money that I can blow on whatever I want.

But over the years, it’s become harder and harder to find coin counting machines that don’t charge a commission. And the tellers greet you and your coins about as warmly as Mullah Omar might be received at a Ground Zero commemoration event.You can use the machine at your grocery store, but you’ll lose 9 percent — not a very good way to start a trip. Five years ago, prior to a trip to Newfoundland, I spent more than an hour lugging two huge, heavy jars of coins around downtown Washington, D.C., looking for a bank that would count my coins.

At least half dozen banks insisted that I roll the coins into paper sleeves — a task that would have taken hours — until I finally found a place that had a no-commission machine. But the most embarrassing part was walking through a park that was filled with homeless people begging. What do you say to a guy who asks for spare change when you’re carrying about $200 worth of it? Ummm, sorry, you see, I’m going to Newfoundland, and….

I gave away a bit but still felt cheap. But not as cheap as I felt today, as I was bounced around nearly every bank in my town and found none that would count my coins without a commission. I’m about to leave for Europe on Tuesday and I had a modest coin collection that I needed to dissolve — but how?

There are seven banks I pass on the way from my children’s preschool to my home. Burke & Herbert, BB & T, Sun Trust and Wells Fargo all had no machine.

“You should roll your coins,” said one annoying teller.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll take that suggestion under consideration” (perhaps when I’m retired or incapacitated).

Then I went into a second, larger BB & T branch and thought I’d hit pay dirt when I saw a coin machine in the corner. But alas, they have a 6% commission unless you open an account. I considered paying the commission but remembered that there were still two more banks I’d pass on my way home.

I struck out at Bank of America, where the teller looked at me and my bag of coins as though we were contagious, but then I saw something promising outside a bank I’d never heard of before across from a bakery with the preposterous name “Panaderia de Paris.”

T.D. Bank’s sign said, “America’s Most Convenient Bank.”

Surely the most convenient bank in the land of the free and the home of the brave would offer a commission-free coin counting machine, right?

“It’s 6% commission unless you open an account,” said the over-officious teller.

A sympathetic man in dreadlocks shook his head and chimed in.

“Man, that ain’t right!” he said. “Why does it cost money to count money?”

I was delighted to have found a like-minded soul and I immediately wanted to invite him to Europe. But instead I inquired about opening an account with an initial deposit of $1.

“You can open an account,” the teller said suspiciously. “But if it falls below the minimum balance of $100, then you’ll be assessed fees.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “You can take them out of my $1 and when it gets to zero you can just dissolve the account.”

“But you’ll be sent to a collection agent,” she said.

That didn’t sound very convenient, so I grudgingly shuffled over to the machine and hit the start button on the touch screen.

An animated image of a cute freckled little girl in bib overalls and pigtails appeared on my screen.

“My name is Penny Arcade!” she chirped. “I’m here to count your coins, are you ready?”

I dumped my coins down Penny’s machine and then the charming lass popped back up on the screen again.

“Do you want to guess how much money you’ve inserted?” she asked. “If you guess within $1.99 of the correct amount you’ll win a prize!”

I asked the teller if there was a fee for guessing.

“Oh no, that’s free,” she said, reassuringly.

I mostly use credit cards these days, and my coin collection is only about a year old, so I guessed $46. A slot-machine-like image popped up on the screen showing six digits with the numbers scrolling very fast, giving one the impression that, who knows, maybe you might win a jackpot. Now this was entertainment clearly worth at least a few bucks.

My depressing total was a paltry $32.44. Less the commission it came to $30.50 — perhaps enough for a meal in an inexpensive trattoria or perhaps a seat on Ryan Air. In an age of plastic and frequent flyer miles, clearly my best coin accumulating days are behind me. How sad.

After handing me the receipt the teller had one last pitch.

“Are you sure you don’t want to open an account?” she asked.

[Photos via Mukumbura, Mapless in Seattle and Jason Rogers on Flickr.]

Ask Gadling: You’re out of money in a foreign country

Even the most intrepid adventure traveler dreads the thought of running out of money while in a foreign country. The fact that this situation usually occurs under dire circumstances only compounds the anxiety and frustration that result from a depleted bank account.

The only time I’ve ever run completely out of funds was on 9/11. I’d been working at a friend’s London restaurant for a month, and sleeping in her spare room. I took two weeks off to visit Spain and Portugal, before flying back into Heathrow to catch my flight home. I arrived in Lisbon my last day, on the fumes of my savings, relieved to be headed home the following morning. I had just enough money left for a dorm bed in a hostel, a couple of bread rolls, and (possibly) cab fare to the airport.

I was in a cheese shop, having a fractured bilingual conversation with the shopkeeper, when I noticed his employees in a huddle, shooting glances my way. As I departed, I felt the shopkeeper’s hand on my arm, and that’s how I found out the World Trade Center–and life as Americans knew it–was no more. I headed back to the hostel in a daze, and spent the next two hours slumped in front of the television, in shock. It quickly became clear I wasn’t going anywhere, and my lack of funds was going to be a bigger problem than I’d anticipated.

On that darkest of days, I was lucky. A savior in the form of a Dutch backpacker loaned me fifty dollars. Actually, he forced it upon me, because he saw me watching the news and quickly assessed my situation. When I was able to get back to London a couple of days later, I picked up the money my parents had wired to a bank, and spent the next week working at the restaurant and crashing on the futon.

Since most of us can’t rely upon a hot Dutch guy to magically appear with a fistful of Euros (definitely a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence), what is the best course of action if you’re suddenly broke, in a country not your own?How to obtain emergency funds

  • Get a cash advance on your debit card. I called my bank, Wells Fargo, and asked them if I could do this in an emergency. I was told that I should go into the nearest bank and request a cash advance, but that it’s entirely up to that institution, as well as your personal bank, as to whether receiving funds is possible. Still, this is the easiest, most obvious first step, assuming your card hasn’t been stolen. On a separate, but related, note, always inform your bank and credit card lenders that you will be traveling overseas, to prevent a security hold.

Most banks/credit card lenders have an “outside the U.S./collect call” number on their website or on the back of your card. Email them to yourself, and write them down on a slip of paper you carry someplace other than your wallet (in case you’re mugged, which is the most common reason travelers find themselves sans money). Actually, it’s best to make two copies of emergency numbers, so you can carry one on your person.

The below numbers are general non-U.S. collect call; many financial institutions also have toll-free numbers by country code listed on their sites.
Mastercard: 1-636-722-7111.
Capital One: 001-804-934-2001.
Bank of America: 1-302-738-5719.
Wells Fargo: Access codes vary by country; click here for listing.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.
  • Get a cash advance on your credit card, if you have one (it’s best to carry one for major emergencies anyway, even if it’s nearly maxed out). Also, be sure to check your credit card lender’s policies on emergency travel assistance, lost/stolen luggage reimbursement, etc. It may save you money or negate your having to purchase travel insurance, which is always a good idea for long-term or adventure travelers.
  • Having someone wire money bank-to-bank is the most secure method of receiving emergency funds. Barring that, international wire transfer services are available through Western Union (1-800-325-6000), and Western Union’s Custom House. Depending upon the provider, funds can be received between one hour to three days after wiring, and service charges will vary.
  • If you’ve got a family member or friend you can trust with your checking or savings account number, have them keep it on file so they can make an emergency deposit, if necessary.
  • Some companies, like Visa, offer prepaid TravelMoney cards. These can be used in an ATM like a debit card, but function like traveler’s checks. They may also be reloadable (i.e. reuseable), and feature lost/stolen luggage reimbursement, and travel and emergency assistance services (Visa offers “24-hour translation assistance, medical and legal referrals, emergency trip arrangements, and emergency messages to relatives.”). Be aware that this pertains to assistance and referral only; it’s your dime for any fees incurred from actual services rendered. Remember, too, that while ATM’s are fairly ubiquitous throughout the world, you can’t always rely upon finding one.

The drawbacks with prepaid cards is that they’re easily lost, stolen, or chewed up by an ATM (one reason I carry three–really–ATM cards when I travel. Portugal also taught me that lesson. Admittedly, it’s more cards to potentially have stolen, but I hedge my bets). They’re also expensive to activate and load, and there can be high foreign currency exchange rate fees.

The U.S. repatriation program is federally-funded, and helps destitute or ill Americans return to the States. Again, this is for serious emergencies, if no other option is available. There are strict requirements for eligibility, and you must apply from the American Consulate or Embassy nearest you at the time.

Don’t forget to register yourself with the U.S. Department of State if you’re traveling anywhere sketchy, or engaging in high-risk activities (no, unprotected sex doesn’t count).

ACS’s domestic number (of use if you’re the one who needs to help out a fellow traveler) is 1-888-407-4747. Outside of the U.S., dial the country code, +202-501-4444.

[Photo credits: Flickr | NoHoDamon; riacale; TheeErin]

Amex is Abandoning Prepaid Traveler’s Cheque Cards

Travelers cheques are a pain. Well, not that I’d know. I’m a child of the ATM era and I’ve always had access to one, except in Laos and Cambodia, and I carried cash there (to be honest, I don’t know if my guesthouse proprietors there would know what to do with a traveler’s cheque anyway.) Using your debit card at ATMs can get expensive if you use them too often, but I’m a budget traveler so I never really had much of a problem. Have you?

Anyway, Amex has decided to abandon it’s Travelers Cheque Card, which allows you to load your card with cash and use at will along your travels. There were several unattractive features of the card — initiation fees, ATM withdrawal fees and foreign conversion fees to boot — and I guess consumers decided it was more of a hassle than it’s worth. I foresee another problem too: while American Express is widely accepted in North America and Western Europe, I have an Amex credit card and I’ve came across a lot of businesses in foreign countries that don’t accept it.

If you have an Amex Travelers Cheque Card, don’t worry. The program will be discontinued as of October 31, and Amex will refund any balances on customer cards left over after that.