Why You Should Renew Your Passport STAT
Twenty million, nine hundred thousand. That’s how many passport applications will be received next year, according to Niles Cole, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs. And 17.4 million passport applications are expected this year, which is nothing to sneeze at, especially when compared to the 16.1 million passport applications the State Department received in 2008. Hence, their advice to get started on the renewal process since they will be plenty busy very soon. “We encourage passport applicants to apply for or renew U.S. passports well ahead of planned travel, as we anticipate longer than average wait times for passport processing over the coming months,” Cole says.
So what’s driving the uptick? There’s the REAL ID act, which makes it mandatory to use a passport for domestic flights for 25 U.S. states and territories, and also the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which requires a passport to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. For the latter, many people signed up in 2006 or 2007, so those are about to expire now. “Nearly 10 years after implementation of WHTI and the associated surge of passport applications, the Bureau of Consular Affairs is preparing for an anticipated surge as those applicants renew their passports,” Cole says.
March is actually the busiest time of year for passport renewal, when so many are preparing for spring trips, so send yours in STAT. Cole advises, “Generally, we recommend individuals renew in in the winter, when the number of passport applications received is at the lowest.” He said they are currently processing passport applications in 6 weeks. “While that is up from four weeks last year, that is still within our service standards. Applicants should check travel.state.gov for the most up-to-date guidance on processing times.”
Though there is an option to expedite the process for an additional fee, Cole believes there shouldn’t be a reason if you plan ahead. He says, “Regardless of when you choose to renew, planning in advance can save time and money.”
Will This Scary New FAA Warning Change the Way You Travel?
The FAA is warning airlines that rechargeable lithium-ion batteries pose a risk of “catastrophic aircraft loss” because the batteries can catch fire and explode, and that current fire-suppressing systems on planes cannot control a lithium-battery fire. The reason this is potentially terrifying to travelers is that rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are found in cell phones and other electronic devices. Take a deep breath. Exhale. You okay? While you're certainly going to see some hysterical headlines about this issue, the good news is that the high risk of fire and explosion the FAA is talking about is associated primarily with cargo containing high-powered batteries or large shipments of batteries. The battery in your phone is not going to set off the kind of apocalyptic pyrotechnics seen in this shocking FAA video. (Say “thank you” next time you have to charge your tiny phone battery: Its relatively short life is what makes it safer than, say, the battery in a hoverboard or larger piece of electronic equipment.) Many passenger airlines are voluntarily agreeing to stop carrying rechargeable lithium-ion batteries as cargo, and the FAA is urging airlines to assess safety risks to better manage the potential dangers posed by lithium batteries. Whether this changes the we travel with personal battery-powered electronic devices like phones and tablets in the future remains to be seen.
How to Fly Your Pet for Free
For many Americans, pets are family members, and they would no more travel without them than they would leave one of their children at home. Unfortunately for Budget Travelers, the airlines seem to know this, and have taken to squeezing as many fees as possible out of passengers who wish to fly with their furry friends. Not only will these fees apply when you fly with a caged animal in the hold, but most airlines will charge you $100 or more just to place a small pet carrier underneath the seat in front of you. But what if there was a way that you could avoid these pet fees altogether and fly Fido for free? It turns out that there are several credit cards that offer hundreds of dollars a year in annual air travel fee credits, which can be applied to these onerous airline pet fees. The American Express Platinum card offers a $200 annual airline fee credit that can be used to pay for pet fees as well as change fees, seat selection fees, and baggage fees. Other benefits include the ability to earn Membership Rewards for spending, which can be redeemed for travel reservations, merchandise or gift cards. In addition, points can be transferred to miles with 16 airline partners. Cardholders also receive access to the Delta SkyClub, Priority Pass Select, and American Express Centurion airport lounges. Note: There is a $450 annual fee for this card. The American Express Premier Rewards Gold card features a similar annual airline fee credit that can be used for pet fees, but it's only $100 per calendar year. Cardholders receive 3X Membership Rewards points for flights booked directly with airlines, 2X points for purchases at U.S. restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets and 1X points on other purchases. This card has a $195 annual fee that is waived the first year. Another card with an annual airline fee credit is the Citi Prestige. It offers cardholders a $250 annual airline fee credit each calendar year, and pet fees are eligible for reimbursement. Other features include 3x points for air travel and hotel purchases, 2x points for dining and entertainment expenses, and one point per dollar spent elsewhere. Points are earned in the ThankYou Rewards program and can be redeemed for travel reservations or transferred to miles with 12 different airlines or points with Hilton hotels. Cardholders also receive access to the American Airlines and Priority Pass Select airport lounges. There is a $450 annual fee for this card. The Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card offers a $300 annual airline fee credit each calendar year, which you can use to cover the pet fees for several flights. Other benefits include three upgrades to the Ritz-Carlton club level each year and a $100 hotel credit on paid stays of two nights or longer. It also offers an annual Lounge Club membership, which features access to hundreds of airport lounges around the world. This card has a $395 annual fee. Finally, cards like the Capital One Venture Rewards card allows you to earn miles that can be redeemed as statement credits toward any travel related expense, including pet fees. This card offers double miles on all purchases, and each mile is worth one cent. There's a $0 intro for this card for the first year and $59 after that. This article was written by Jason Steele, Credit Card Expert at CompareCards.com.
10 Smart & Easy Money-Saving Secrets
At Budget Travel, we devote a lot of time to helping travelers get the most out of their financial resources. That can mean finding bargains in notoriously expensive destinations like Paris, introducing our audience to surprisingly affordable luxury experiences such as Palm Springs, or just showing them how to wring every last second of pleasure out of their vacation without breaking the bank. I recently spoke with Jesse Mecham, CEO and founder of the personal finance site You Need a Budget (YNAB), who, as the name of his brand suggests, is a kindred spirit who has devoted a lot of his time to a mission similar to ours: showing everyone how to take control of their financial resources and getting the most out of them. When you add Budget Travel’s know-how to YNAB’s solid financial advice and online- and app-driven financial trackers, the sum is 10 start-today tips to help you save for your next big trip. VISUALIZE YOUR VACATION Before we get into hardcore money-saving tips and financial tracking tools, we need to start with something a little less tangible, but critical to the process: creative visualization. Really! You’re already familiar with the notion of creative visualization when it comes to travel. Many trips begin with vacation inspiration from one of Budget Travel's features or slideshows. For Mecham, visualization is more than just dreaming. “The biggest paradigm shift in saving and spending smarter is to really get into the why behind your vacation,” he says. “Think back to a vacation that you absolutely loved. What was it about that vacation that made it great? Was it the specific location, the company, the relaxed pace? Was it time spent with your family unplugged from work?” Let that visualization inspire you not only to plan your next vacation, but to devote yourself to saving for it in the most responsible manner possible. GIVE EVERY DOLLAR A JOB The concept I like best about Mecham's You Need a Budget program is its No. 1 rule: Give each dollar a “job.” That is a way of focusing on what money you actually have on hand (not future paychecks, windfalls, or hoped-for raises or bonuses) and making sure you understand what each dollar (literally down to zero) is going to do for you (its “job”). That means, of course, understanding exactly what you need to spend on essentials like your home, food, utilities, and car before you can assign any dollars to travel. This may at first sound limiting, but it is actually the opposite: Giving each dollar a job frees you to start putting aside what you need for travel. Should you choose to use YNAB’s online- and app-driven financial tracking services (they offer a free trial), the notion of assigning jobs to dollars becomes very tangible and habitual, and it’s fun to see your savings go up. “My biggest budgeting challenge before developing You Need a Budget was dealing with an irregular income,” Mecham says. “But YNAB teaches you to budget only the money you have on hand, so it becomes much more manageable. And now I prepare for large, less frequent expenses (like vacations!) by spreading them out as monthly costs, saving a lot of stress.” UNDERSTAND YOUR EXPENSES Mecham actually calls this “embracing” your expenses. After you assign each dollar its job for essentials, it’s time to break down larger, less frequent expenses like holidays, insurance, birthdays, and, yes, travel) so you can treat them as regular monthly expenses. Instead of “saving for a rainy day,” you are accurately predicting how much you’ll spend on your annual vacation (for many, that tends to amount to about one week’s salary, though avid travelers often budget much more). Broken down into very simple math, if your dream trip to Yellowstone is going to cost $1,200, you can easily “embrace” the notion of putting aside $100 per month for a year. It’s really an extension of “give each dollar a job” and allows you to pinpoint what you need for that trip you visualized and make it a regularly monthly "expense" instead of one big annual bill. BE FLEXIBLE Budget Travelers already know that sometimes you’ve got to take life as it comes, right? Challenges are opportunities, sudden changes of plans can lead you to wonderful new discoveries. When budgeting for travel, “roll with the punches” is a mantra that Mecham recommends when you go over budget. The process of budgeting is focused on establishing priorities. When you need to spend more on, say, groceries, that means your priorities have changed (usually temporarily) and you need to adjust. When saving for vacation, that may mean a fluctuation in currency (which can mean more or less money to spend overseas) or a new restaurant you simply must try. Mecham emphasizes that changing priorities are nothing to feel guilty about: Go with it. SPEND MONEY YOU’VE ALREADY EARNED This may sound obvious. After all, who spends money they haven’t earned yet? Actually, we all do sometimes, and it’s a problem. It can mean allocating expenses to a paycheck that’s two weeks or even a month away. At worst, it can mean borrowing money at interest. Mecham advises that by giving every dollar a job, you will work toward spending only money that you earned at least 30 days ago. It’s easy to understand, and it’s attainable. And the best part is that it breaks the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle that so many people fall into. Translation? More dollars to allocate to your priorities, including that trip you visualized in step one. SPEND ON THE THINGS THAT MAKE YOU HAPPY Now, about that trip you visualized? After adopting the habits recommended above, go back to your visualization and focus on some of the specifics: If you’re picturing Paris, are you a museum lover? A foodie? Is there a dream scenario (champagne at the Eiffel Tower?) that is a priority for you? We’ve found that it’s easier to save and to identify and eliminate money-wasting habits when you identify what you’d rather spend that money on. “If you can zero in on what exactly it is that makes a vacation great for you,” says Mecham, “you'll naturally spend money on things that maximize those attributes. This drives up the value where you do choose to spend money, and it obviously lowers the cost of things you decide aren't really that important to you.” SET GOALS Broadly speaking, most of us set three kinds of financial goals: Time-bound savings (like for that dream trip next summer), general savings without a time frame (such as an emergency fund you just want to grow over time), and allocating a specific amount to a specific purpose on a regular basis (such as monthly groceries). Identifying which of your goals fall into which of these categories helps make your priorities clear and your progress satisfyingly real. For travelers, of course, the time-bound goal is often the most relevant and the most effective way to save: “I want to spend $5,000 on vacation in Morocco in 10 months” is specific and ambitious, and that deadline means it’s a priority for you. If one month you’re able to put aside, say, $1,000, that takes the pressure off other months a little. If one month you fall behind, an online- or app-driven tool such as You Need a Budget can alert you so you’re encouraged to get back on track. GET CREATIVE WITH YOUR VACATION SPENDING I had to ask Mecham what his favorite travel experience was (I ask everybody!), and his answer illuminates a great principle of money-saving travel techniques: “My favorite travel experience was when I took my wife and kids to Germany for an entire month. The best part of the vacation was when we stayed in this tiny little town at the foot of the Swiss Alps and just relaxed. I was able to focus entirely on the family, we cooked great German food right there in the home we were renting and, believe it or not, we even spent a good portion of the day working on a puzzle of Neuschwanstein (the "Cinderella Castle"). It was just such a change of scenery and pace that it sticks out to our family as one of our favorite travel experiences.” Notice what Mecham didn’t do: There’s no mention of a pricey hotel or fancy restaurants. For him and his family, spending time together in a rented home and cooking for themselves was a priority. (If that priority doesn’t float your boat, no worries. The important thing is that you identify what you really want to spend your money on and make that your focus.) DON’T CHARGE YOUR TRIP! Budget Travel is a like a broken record on this point, but it always bears repeating: If you wouldn’t ask a friend or family member to lend you $5,000 for a dream trip, don’t borrow it from a stranger at interest! While we’re all for the judicious use of credit cards for travel (racking up rewards points, getting great currency exchange rates, free checked bags, etc.), we must caution every traveler against charging a trip you can’t afford and then paying way more for it over time. In fact, that’s basically the polar opposite of giving each dollar a job. USE AN APP When I got my first full-time job out of college and started managing my meager income, I must admit I did it mostly in my head. I knew what my priorities were (food, travel) and my expenses were shockingly low (rent). But grownups shouldn’t carry imaginary spreadsheets in their heads. Just about every financial advisor I’ve spoken with recommends a personal finance tool. These days, that often takes the form of an app that allows you to carry real-time spreadsheets in your pocket. If you’re keen on adopting You Need a Budget’s money-saving principles, a free trial of their app is a risk-free way to start. You can track your spending, analyze it, hook it up to your bank account if you like, and see how it helps you prioritize your travel habit. And be sure to let us know how your new money-saving travel plan works.Presented by
Let's Talk About Rewards Programs
Airline rewards programs get a lot of hype and are often greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. We'd love to hear your honest input about your rewards program habits. Take our quick poll, and look for the results here in an upcoming story at BudgetTravel.com and in our March/April tablet issue. Survey Creator