Brent and Michael's Secret Travel Hacks!
After four years of continuous travel, we've learned lots of ways to save big money.
Michael and I have been digital nomads for four years, living long-term in at least fifteen different countries, and briefly visiting dozens more.
We’re also both really good at analyzing systems and finding ways to save money.
Basically, Michael is smart, and I’m cheap.
Want to benefit from my cheapness, his smarts, and our collective travel experience?
Here are some of our favorite cost-saving, stress-reducing travel tips.
For more travel hacks, see Part Two of this column here and Part Three here and Part Four here and Part Five here.
Airbnb has a terrible default reservation policy: basically, if you cancel 48 hours after making your reservation, you’re usually still on the hook for the first thirty days of your rental. As an alternative, check out Booking.com. Most listings there offer much more generous cancellation policies, usually a full refund up to a week or even the day before your arrival. Better still, Booking.com includes apartments in many cities (not just hotel rooms) — and they’re often literally the same apartments listed on Airbnb. Before you book on Airbnb, always check Booking.com first. Oh! And those “genius” discounts that Booking.com says they offer once you’ve booked a few rentals? They’re real — and substantial. Genius Level 1 gives you a 10% discount on everything, and Genius Level 2 offers up to a 15% discount, plus sometimes occasional perks like free breakfasts or a room upgrade. We’ve repeatedly searched for reservations with and without our login info, and we’re always shocked to find the discounts are real. Drawbacks to Booking.com? More hotels than actual apartments, and reservations can’t be longer than 30 days (but you can always make two reservations).
If you’re American who enjoys international travel, get Global Entry! This is a federal U.S. program that “pre-clears” you as a lesser security risk, so it lets you bypass long security lines, and also makes customs screenings much faster. Global Entry includes TSA Pre-Check (and is more comprehensive). We hemmed and hawed about getting Global Entry, especially since it requires a brief, in-person FBI interview (and if you’ve used drugs in the past, even in states where they’re legal, well, remember this is a federal program; since drug use is still illegal in federal law, an admission of use will result in an immediate denial). But Global Entry has saved us so many hours of waiting time, often after long, grueling flights. Once you’ve been accepted into the program, be sure to list the card number on your airline reservation (so it appears on your ticket), and when in airports, follow the signs for TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry to bypass the crowds. Oh! And unlike TSA Pre-Check, the card doesn’t just work at airports; it also works in cruise ship terminals and other points of entry. Also: many travel credit cards will reimburse you the cost of both programs, so you pay nothing.
Most people know that the best, most convenient way to get cash internationally is to simply use an ATM. But many people aren’t aware of all the fees that may be involved. In almost all cases, you should decline the ATM’s foreign conversion rate, which can be outrageous. Sometimes the ATM will not make this obvious, but your goal should always be to withdraw your money in the local currency. Then your bank back home will convert the withdrawal into your home currency. But! Some sneaky banks charge a foreign ATM conversion fee — on top of an out-of-network ATM transaction fee! And the ATM may charge a fee on top of that — one that may not even be disclosed on the machine. The mind reels at how unscrupulous this all is. So before you leave home, you need to have a little talk with your bank: what is their foreign ATM conversion fee? What are the fees they charge for out-of-network ATMs? Michael’s and my credit union (BECU in Seattle) charges no fees at all, has a reasonable conversion rate, and refunds all foreign ATM fees. Frankly, your bank should do all this too.
When it comes to ATMs, banks are better than stand-alone machines, and inside is better than outdoors, where the machines are more likely to have some kind of spyware.
Now that most airlines have fewer or no blackout periods, frequent flier miles have real value, especially for international flights. And the best way to rapidly accrue miles is with affinity credit cards, which also often include other perks, like guest passes to airport lounges, modest travel insurance, and free checked bags. (If you’re traveling outside of America, you absolutely need a “travel” credit card anyway; otherwise you may be charged an outrageous foreign exchange fee on every purchase.) The truth is, the sign-up bonuses on these cards keep getting better and better. There is a debate about which is the very best travel card. Some say Chase Sapphire Reserve (which has the most perks, including paying your Global Entry or PSA Pre-Check fee, but it also has a high annual fee, though it is partially refunded), but we like Chase Sapphire Preferred (which has slightly fewer perks but a much lower annual fee). But even with crazy-big bonuses, given the annual fees, these cards really only make financial sense if you get a new card — with a new sign-up bonus — as often as they allow. If you’re a couple, you can also refer each other and take advantage of the referral bonuses. Regardless, it’s important to keep the cards at least a full year, or you may lose your bonus miles. Plus, all this card shuffling and cancelling may affect your credit rating.
Overwhelmed by all this talk of bonuses and fees and cancelling cards? Consider a plain old “cash back” travel card. We like Bank of America Travel Rewards, which includes a cash sign-up bonus, cash-back on qualifying purchases, and no annual fees ever. Ah, simplicity! Whatever you decide, you should always do an annual assessment of your credit cards: Does this one still fit my needs? Considering everything together, am I paying out more than I’m getting back in value?
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