Most people are somewhat familiar with the concept of collecting frequent flier miles. My husband and I have built our whole travel strategy around frequent flier miles in fact, but there’s another travel reward currency with huge benefits once you understand how it works.
Bank points. Specifically I’m referring to “American Express Membership Rewards” and “Chase Ultimate Rewards.”
First lets go over what these points are and how to earn them. Then, we’ll take a look at why they’re beneficial to have around.
What are Amex points and Chase points?
When you see an airline card that earns miles, you know that the airline has partnered with a bank to have a credit card that earns towards their own frequent flier program. However, the banks ant in on the loyalty program system too. So, like many other banks, American Express and Chase bank have both developed their own rewards system with credit cards that earn points towards that system.
These points are extremely versatile. You can redeem them for cash if you’d like, or surf through the list of other options, including both travel that can be booked directly with points, or travel that can be booked by transferring directly into a frequent flier or hotel program. The latter is greatly recommended over booking travel directly with your points, but we’ll discuss that in a bit.
How do you earn these points?
These points can be earned with American Express cards or Chase cards that aren’t partnered with some other program as mentioned above. For instance, American Express has partnered with the hotel group “Starwood” to create a credit card for their loyalty program. That card will not earn you Amex points, it will earn Starwood Preferred Guest Points. But the American Express Gold card and the American Express Gold card are both cards that are not partnered with a different program and will earn you Amex points.
Similarly, the Chase Freedom card, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and Chase Ink Bold or Ink Plus are all cards that will earn you Chase points rather than the points of a program they’ve partnered with.
Why these points are beneficial?
These points are beneficial purely for their ability to transfer to a variety of airline or hotel programs. Find a list of Chase transfer partners here. Also find a list of American Express transfer partners here. I’m going to emphasize that again: the benefit is in transferring. This is not to be confused with booking travel directly with your points, as you’ll get much less travel for your points that way. Think of it like purchasing something through a retailer versus wholesale.
Think about it. If you have American Airline miles, that means you can use those miles to fly with American Airlines or any of their alliance partners. That gives you quite a few options, yes, but if you have bank points, you can transfer your points to an array of airlines representing any alliance, or transfer them into a hotel program. This allows you to be very flexible based on your needs. For instance sometimes we’ll be arriving someplace with no plan for accommodations and no hotel points at our exposure. In that kind of situation, we could always transfer Amex points to Hilton points.
Or, as we approach our travel plans, we can compare prices between the different mileage programs and transfer our points only once we’ve decided whose mileage program offers the cheapest options to our travel destination. If we compare prices in points and see that United has the cheapest reward flight to Asia, then we can transfer our Chase points to United.
The main thing to remember is that your points need to be transferred into the mileage program (or hotel program) of your choice for you to get the best value, (rather than keeping them as Amex or Chase points and booking travel directly that way.) I know I’ve already said this, but it’s one of the easiest ways to get more value out of your earnings.
The steps for transferring are fairly simple.
American Express Membership Rewards Points transfer process:
1.) First sign into your American Express online account here.
2.) Click on “Rewards” at the top and then select “Use Points” on the drop-down.
3.) Click on the “Travel” tab.
4.) Select the “Transfer Points” option.
5.) There, you will see a “Hotels” tab and an “Airlines” tab. Select the one which applies and click on the icon of your transfer choice. From there, you will be prompted for the rest of the transfer.
Chase Ultimate Rewards Points transfer process:
1.) Sign into your Chase Ultimate Rewards account here.
Now…here’s where it gets a little complicated, so I strongly recommend reading my post on the intricacies of Chase. The basic thing to note here is that only certain Chase cards allow points-transfer as a benefit of the card. This means that even if you have a card that earns Chase points, you won’t be able to transfer them until you have one of the following cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold, or Chase Ink Plus.
2.) Provided you have one of the cards listed above, the transfer process is very simple. At the top of your account page you will see a “Point Transfer” tab.
3.) You will see two options, one for hotels and one for airlines. Just as with Amex points, you will see a display of icons. Select the one you want and follow the prompts.
So what are the recommended transfers?
With Amex pints we will usually transfer to one of the following: Air Canada, British Airways or ANA. We base this decision on availability as well as whose flights seem to produce the least amount of fuel surcharges.
With Chase points we almost always transfer to United miles. This is because United miles have pretty much no fuel surcharges. This means that your “free flight” won’t have a surprise $200 fee tacked onto it. Not to mention United’s mileage program offers fairly good award prices for economy and also allows one free stopover for any roundtrip, international award flight. We love United and thus, we love Chase points too.
Let’s recap the basic points:
1.) The bank points especially worth noting are American Express Membership Rewards points (Amex points) and Chase Ultimate Rewards points (Chase points.)
2.) Bank points are useful for allowing flexibility. You can earn knowing that you’ll later be able to transfer based on your travel needs.
3.) Transferring points will give you a better value than booking directly with your points, though your online account allows you to do either.
Again, for a more in-depth look at Chase points specifically (our favorite) I recommend checking out this post on getting to know Chase.
I have only been broke once- right after my divorce. I made it out of that rut pretty quickly because A) My new business took off, and B) I had family and friends nearby who occasionally brought food or baked goods.
I am cautious with my money, especially while being out of the country. I have always had enough in my savings to fly the kids and I home on a moment’s notice in case of emergency, or in case I just got sick of being away. I never want to feel “stuck” somewhere, so I manage finances responsibly.
However, the end of the year poses extra challenges because my clients get too busy to pay me on time, and holidays are always expensive. This year, though we spent next to nothing during Christmas, while we celebrated in Costa Rica, I had other unexpected challenges. I had to pay lawyer fees in regards to my ex-husband trying to sabotage our travels, and we had a LOT of travel expenses that needed to be paid for immediately. I completely wiped out my entire savings, paying for airline tickets to go home for a visit and to make a court appearance, leaving a few Colones in change to pay for food.
As a mother, I felt like a complete failure. We already live on a strict budget, and I make good money, so how did this happen? This was my #1 fear by far before I left the states, and here it was, a reality. A very scary reality. Survival mode kicked in, and I had to quickly turn my thoughts towards abundance- imagining a full pantry and refrigerator, and a re-plenished bank account.
The first few days were the roughest, but a neighbor (who did not know our situation) brought us a bunch of homemade tamales. I cried out of gratefulness.
A couple of days later, Jonathan got paid for a job he has been doing here, so we paid our final month of rent here, and bought 2 days worth of food. I just kept hoping something more would come through, someone would pay their invoice, or I would find a hundred dollars on the street. I tried to remain hopeful, but I was also feeling desperate.
One night last week, we all shared a meal of cabbage, eggs and rice, and I cried through the whole meal. I get emotional even thinking about it. The kids didn’t know our struggle. They always had 3 meals a day, and knew nothing of the couple of meals I skipped so they could have enough. This, to me, is not even close to ideal. I was so angry with myself, but felt helpless to do anything about it but wait.
Finally, someone paid an invoice, so we were able to buy more food, and another large chunk of money I was expecting will be available in less than 24 hours.
Situations are temporary. A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck, and it is perfectly normal to skimp on even essentials sometimes. Here, families make the best of it. I have been incredibly fortunate that this has only happened to me one time in 2 years. Not only that, but for me, I knew it was only a temporary situation, as I knew I had plenty of money on its way to me within a few days or weeks.
Money comes, and money goes. People even here in Monteverde spend their last Colones every pay period on food, and know that more money is coming. They don’t worry. They don’t live their life around money and how much or how little they have. As long as they are working hard and enjoying their lives, they know money will find its way to them when they need it. And it always does.
Karma seeds sprout when needed. One of us must have done something good for someone because we were given a bunch of tamales that fed all of us for 2 meals. People here have friends, family, and neighbors here for them, and with such a small community, everyone pitches in to help. Had we expressed even the slightest need, people here would have delivered food by the tray- I just know it. Their hearts are pure, and they feel responsible for each other in their small community- even to us as visitors. They also know that when they are in need, their community is here for them.
We will always make it. It was terrifying. I felt like a complete failure, and I had no other options except to ask someone to borrow money (which, had we gone any longer, I may have). But we used the resources we had, and we made it. Jonathan is very creative with the most off-the-wall ingredients, and when I had just about given up trying to make it all work, he stepped in, and made a meal out of very little. He encouraged me, and reminded me that I was not a failure, and we would be more than ok. He was right.
I am not immune to hard times. Just because I feel like Super Travel Mom on my best days, I don’t always have it all together, and I can’t make everything work perfectly. Things happen. Money needs to be spent. Invoices are paid late. Lawyers demand payments. Kids get sick. I think what made this situation more difficult for me is the fact that I am not home, surrounded by friends and loved ones. I have my little family with me, but no one outside of the situation was here to provide support or encouragement. I felt all alone in a foreign country with nothing left, and it was a humbling experience to say the least.
It is all part of the journey. Last night when I whipped out my calculator to make sure we really were ok, Jonathan gently grabbed my hand and told me that this was part of the experience. We could have stayed home and had plenty of money, friends, and extra support. But we gave it up for something-not necessarily better- but different. We chose another path full of different experiences, and there are ups and downs, just as there were ups and downs when we were in the safety of our home towns.
Living without increases awareness. I was intently focused on money or the lack of it during the last couple of weeks. Once I had literally worried myself sick about it, I realized that I needed to use the resources I had and to maintain a healthy atmosphere for my family. I had to ground myself in the present circumstances- all the positive and the negative- and be acutely aware of my body, my mind, and my emotions. I was creating more turbulence by walking around with a frown on my face, complaining about an empty bank account, worrying about tomorrow, and crying. One night, I chose to focus on the good, the present, and the meals we were fortunate enough to eat that day. The next morning, I woke up with money in the bank.
Has this ever happened to you while you were away from home? What resources did you use to get past it? How long did your predicament last? How creative were you in solving your dilemma?
“He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.” -Socrates
Dealing with money on the road can be a real pain in the ass.
You want to have enough on hand at all times, but not too much, because then you worry about it being stolen out of your bag or back pocket. If your journey is taking you along the trail well traveled, from city to city, and not far off of the hostel row, then the odds are good that you’ll have no problems. ATMs are plentiful and as long as you’ve got that ubiquitous four digit numeric code for your PIN, you’ll have constant access to your money.
But what happens when you “go local,” or the machines breakdown, or your card gets stolen, or the numbers skimmed at a bugged ATM? Then what?
It’s important to have contingency plans in place and access to your money in more than one way. Instead of keeping all of your eggs in one basket, consider dividing your money between several accounts, even several banks. We have ours split between a local, brick and mortar bank, a completely online bank, E-trade & Paypal in about seven different accounts. We have debit cards on four of those, so there’s never a crisis. When our numbers were skimmed in Guatemala and our account locked down while they figured it out, we carried on with the others. No drama.
Because we have a family, and our worst nightmare is being stuck somewhere with no money and no options, we have layers of contingency that might seem like overkill to some people:
We’ve been laughed at by fellow travelers, but we’ve also been reduced to just the traveler’s cheques when banks have been haywire and ATMs have been jacked. USD is never a bad idea (in some parts of the world, it’s the best way to go!) Having too much money is hardly ever a problem!
Of course storing the spare change in a low key manner is the next issue.
What do you do about money when you travel? Have any great tricks or “secrets” to share?
I sat down and tried to calculate how much money I spent visiting India last year, my way: the balance is ridiculously low. India is a cheap country, yes, but this would not have been possible without a few tricks.
Here is a lowdown on how I managed to spend 110$ for 6 weeks travelling from Kolkata to Delhi in North India, taking it slow, and doing a lot side trips. Hopefully the following suggestions may be useful for someone else!
You are in India, PAY like and Indian
This is a basic rule that applies to all of my trips: I do not want to pay more. If my skin is white, it does not mean I am rich, or stupid. If an Indian pays 10, why do I have to pay 100? A tourist in India has to bear enough of this double-tier pricing when visiting all Indian main sites (more on this next), but seriously, why should I pay 20 rupees when the guy next to me pays 5 for the same auto-rickshaw ride? It is a game, and a damn funny one. Learn the local lingo: pach rupee is five, das is ten. Surprise them. Talk to them in other languages than English as they keep on talking to a clueless you in Hindi. See how much fun it is. Send five, ten, twenty drivers away before you find a honest man, because they do exist, although very rare.
Avoid the inflated tourist attractions’ entry fees
India is the most unfair country in the world when it comes to double tier pricing. A Taj Mahal ticket which costs you a whooping 750 rupees, costs an Indian 20. Yes, 20 only. It is just a little over 300% more. Because they think we are rich, and we deserve to pay. Fine, let’s pay more. But do not pay for everything, be wise. The Sun Temple in Konark, Orissa, for example: just walk around it. It will not give you the perfect visual, but it would save the 200 rupees entry fee. And you will see it even better from the outer enclosure. And whenever they ask you to pay to be able to take pictures, please hide your camera and snatch away as much as you can. (more…)
You’d love to tell your boss you’re taking off – and actually do it.
But then you come back to reality. You’ve got a house you need to pay for. Car payments to make… Pay off those credit cards… Buy new furniture for your living room… And you need to save for retirement. Maybe that trip of a lifetime will never happen after all.
I would venture to guess that most people can take that trip of their dreams if they simply put their mind to it. It’s all a matter of priorities.
Now before you jump all over my back, I want to point out that little word “most” in the previous sentence. I do understand there are people out there who simply can’t take off for one reason or another, but for most, it’s doable. It comes down to priorities.
So how do you do it? How do you manage to save the money for a trip like this? Easy – you make it a priority. I’m not talking about giving the journey lip service – I’m saying you have to decide it really, honestly, truly is your priority. If it’s not, there will be a million other things to spend your money on.
Trim the Fat
I know, I know – you’ve heard this before: eliminate all expenses that aren’t necessary. Maybe you could stop buying that $5 coffee from Starbucks every morning, or carry your lunch rather than going out with the boys. You’ve read all that before.
But I think it comes down to something a bit different. I’m not necessarily saying to cut all that out, but to simply make conscious decisions. Remember – it’s all about priorities and making conscious decisions. Is that $5 coffee more important than your trip? Then, by all means, buy it. Lunch with the boys higher on the priority list than the journey? Then go for it. Just remember to make conscious decisions. Come back again and again to what is truly important in your life and make decisions based on that. (more…)
It’s a well-worn practice the world over: customers and vendors talking price. CNNGo tackled this issue in a post titled How to bargain: the ultimate guide to scoring a deal in the markets of Asia.
Many of the tips will be familiar to experienced vagabonders: shop around, be polite, and be ready to walk away. What makes the article special is the little details about particular destinations. Some examples:
Have you negotiated over a purchase at a market? Please share your stories in the comments.
I recently got an email from Jen and Ted, a pair of Canadian Vagabonding readers who perfectly sum up how, sometimes, the most important thing one must do in order to travel the world long-term is to simply realize that it is possible. Here’s their story, in Jen’s words:
I have been unsure for the past few months how to word this, as this is basically the biggest thank you of my life. Our story is as follows: My husband & I have been married just over 2 years and were (unknowingly) stuck going about the typical life pattern of going to university, working away our young years at professional jobs, and making good money to go on expensive, rushed 2-week vacations a couple of times per year. We both were happy in our positions with good pay, benefits, and pleasant coworkers that made work enjoyable. I am a Emergency Room nurse at a well-reknowned paediatric hospital in Toronto; it is a stressful but rewarding job and I love it immensely. My husband has a great job in programming & software development working on cutting-edge projects and he too enjoys his role. Both are well-paying jobs in the fields we studied in university & we are grateful for these positions.
However…each time we travelled on vacation, it opened up that incredible thirst to see new cultures, to experience life in a different part of the world. It was such a tease. We would jealously meet people in our travels around the world who would be backpacking for a few months or indefinitely. We never considered ourselves capable of being in that category – we assumed those people were special, they had no-strings-attached & we had plenty of strings. They must have had different jobs, different circumstances than us. We thought they were “lucky”. Reading your book opened an entire way of thinking for my husband and I, one that we were both too afraid to even fully believe/feel. It made us realize that luck did not find these people and transport them around the globe. A conscious decision was made to change the course of their life, and they went out and achieved it. They were not just dreamers, but passionate achievers.
So we began to toy with the idea of dropping everything & exploring all of the places we so desperately want to see. Not just see on a crammed, over-priced vacation – see in a way that we experience and live in different places, something more long-term. Initially there was a lot of fear. What will happen if we leave? What about our jobs, our families, our friends? In the end the realization was that the answer was this: nothing. Nothing will happen. Our jobs will carry on without us – we will be swiftly replaced and our absence will soon be forgotten about by the presence of the next employee. The opportunity to return will likely be there and if not we will seek other jobs if need be. Our families? They will continue their day-to-day activities, jobs, and responsibilities. We will miss them immensely but we will continue to keep in touch like we currently do living out of town from them. Our friends? They will also continue with their routines of work, social activities, some maybe commenting that they wish they could do what we were doing. But I know when we return nothing will have changed. But we will have changed. And that is the motivating factor behind all this.
Your book put us in a position where we realized that our life could have passed us by. We could have continued, under societal pressures, working indefinitely, banking in money, saving up for things like a house and a baby – things that would just ground us even more here. I feel like I almost missed the most important thing that could have ever happened to me. And truly, as ridiculous as it may sound, I may have missed that opportunity had I not read your book.
So thanks so much, for giving us the push that we need to seek out our dreams. It’s honestly changed our mentality and way of living. As of today, we have literally sold everything we own. We are moving into a furnished place in 4 days to pay literally half the rent we currently pay for the next 3 months. We are quitting our jobs and have a non-cancellable one-way flight booked for Cartagena, Colombia on January 3, 2013. We are travelling for 6 months, possibly more/indefinitely.
Thank you for writing your book and giving people the courage to live their life in a meaningful way & to pursue their dreams of seeing the big and beautiful world that is at our fingertips.
Jen & Ted
I have been on the road for nine months straight as I write, and I have slowly noticed how I changed my budget habits overtime. Initially, I had a big plan, quite a small budget, and an indicative daily expense limit that would make most people laugh – or faint. I was mostly successful in keeping expenses between 5 and 10 $ a day by travelling in a very cheap region – the Indian subcontinent -, using Couchsurfing or seeking local hospitality as much as I could, sticking only to public transportation and local meals. By strictly adhering to my own rules, I managed to spend 5 and a half months across India, Nepal and Bangladesh and spending about 1000$ for me and my girlfriend together. But I also have to say that the very low price came with another kind of expense: some sort of travel burnout.
After three more months and almost at the end of an Asia to Europe overland trip along the Silk Road, by trying to adhere to the same rules that made my Indian vagabonding highly rewarding, I must admit: I feel that sticking to the planned budget is working less. And it is not because of the different prices of accommodation, food and transportation in different countries, as all of the above can be overcome by the more resourceful on a tight budget. I feel it is because, as I see myself nearer to the end of one year of travel bliss, I am pushed to abandon my strict budget plan, and enjoy things in a more economically relaxed way.
At the beginning, I would never have chosen to have a sporadic breakfast in a café, opting instead for the street food at the market’s stalls. But now, as I stretch the last dollars and I still try to make it within the limits of a tight sum, the whole budget idea is not that important anymore. It may be the prospective of returning, and settling into some new sort of job that is giving more security and allows spending more leisurely. Or it may just be that, after a long time trying to make everything fit into the lowest possible expenditure in order to stay on the road the longest, a traveler just needs to forget about budgeting to feel like there is a change in a daily travel routine. Did you ever have similar feelings?
I stayed away from frequent flyer credit cards for a long time, because I wanted to avoid debt. The other reason was that since I lived in Asia, flights were relatively cheap anyway. Looking back, there were a lot of missed opportunities to earn air miles. Now that I’m back in the States, my situation has changed. Getting outside of North America can easily cost over $1,000. As a result, I researched into travel rewards cards to see how to earn flights.
Nomadic Matt had an interview with Brian Kelly, better known as The Points Guy. TPG is one of the best-known blogs for how to earn more frequent flyer miles. Kelly is like a real-life Ryan Bingham, the character memorably portrayed by George Clooney in the film Up in the Air (watch the air miles scene) Take this excerpt, for example:
For instance, while the current Chase Sapphire Preferred bonus offer is down to 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points from its high of 50,000, I still think it’s a great card because you get double points on travel and dining spending (basically all I do), and those categories are fairly broad so you can earn a ton of points. You could then combine those points with the Ultimate Rewards points you earn with the Chase Freedom card’s quarterly spending bonus categories where you earn 5 points per dollar spent on things like groceries, office supplies, gas stations, or specific merchants like Amazon. Suddenly you’re looking at a ton of extra points.
I will say that you absolutely must do your homework before applying for a credit card. Always look at the fine print and carefully read the terms and conditions. For example, many credit card promise big sign-up bonuses. However, if you read closely, they often require you to spend a large amount of money over a short time period. A common deal I’ve seen is spending $1,000 in three months. The card I picked offered 25,000 miles with your first purchase, regardless of the amount.
The other tip I can give is that if you buy stuff on the Internet, always check your card’s “shopping portal” first. Most credit cards have specific websites that link to the online merchants they’ve partnered with. Let’s say you want to buy new clothes from Nordstrom’s website and you have a credit card with United Airlines. You could earn more miles per dollar if you logged into the United Airlines Mileage Plus Shopping website, then clicked on Nordstrom there. MileagePlus would bounce you over to Nordstrom, and then you would make your purchase. You would get more miles then if you’d gone to Nordstrom directly.
Of course, sometimes you’ll find that your credit card doesn’t have an affiliation with a site you prefer to use like Amazon, and you have to go with lesser-known vendor like Buy.com. I encountered this recently when shopping for video equipment. Then there are times where you have to go for quality, regardless of how it affects your miles. I wanted a good-quality lapel mic for my videos, and the best reviews were for a small independent business called Giant Squid Audio Lab. The owner is an audiophile who makes his own microphones. Even though I wouldn’t get double or triple miles, I bought a mic from him anyway.
Do you use travel rewards cards? How do you get the most out of them? Please share your tips in the comments.
Savvy travelers probably know these things, but I know some who are still behind the curve and going abroad soon. So here’s an update: Though many report having no problems at all using their US mag-stripe cards and ordinary ATM cards abroad, make sure your credit or debit card has a smart chip. The global standard is “chip and PIN” technology, meaning you’ll need to enter a PIN after the terminal reads the card’s chip. Call your credit card company and ask for a new card with a smart chip for the “chip and signature” option. Most cards without the chip will still work sans-PIN at most automated kiosks though, since a signature is generally not needed for purchases under $50.
Another thing to keep in mind when pulling out the plastic abroad: When in doubt, go with the debit card. Though your bank likely charges a currency conversion fee in transactions abroad, credit card fees are usually almost twice as high as debit card transaction fees. Capital One does not charge foreign transaction fees at all, so it may be worth getting one just for your travel use. If you want other card options, the helpful site NerdWallet.com has a list of cards that don’t charge them either.
Roaming charges for calls can be another “under the radar”-type budget buster. Smartphone users can rack up big roaming fees unless they remember to switch on the device’s Airplane Mode and Wi-Fi when boarding the flight to a far-off place. Also remember to switch off the cellular mode.
Data usage costs more money overseas, but the International Data Plans from your provider are rarely the best option anyway; use Skype or Truphone instead (I’m a big fan of Skype) and, with a decent Wi-Fi signal, you can make international calls for dirt cheap. Estimate how much usage you’ll need. There is the ever-handy pay-as-you-go option or a monthly, flat-fee plan that allows unlimited calls in certain countries.
Alternatively, Facebook’s Vonage Mobile app enables globetrotters to make free international calls over Wi-Fi to Facebook friends who also download the app. If caller and recipient have iPhones, FaceTime is a great deal with one flat fee.
Now go have some fun!