These are the U.S. travel advisories for December 2020

Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.  The global coronavirus pandemic has impacted every country in the world. As Americans (and countries around the world) experience a surge in COVID-19 cases, it’s important to revisit the travel advisories that have been issued by the U.S. Department of State, especially as …

Source: thepointsguy.com

How to Plan and Save on Holiday Travel

Some of my fondest college memories aren’t from going to homecoming games, attending my first college party or walking around campus when no one else was going to class. Some of my favorite memories are going home for winter break and seeing all my high school friends. Seeing old friends was always so fun, especially since we had all matured during the previous semester.  

But getting home was another story. I went to college in Bloomington, Ind., a small college town where the university was the main attraction. That meant getting a flight back to my hometown of Memphis, Tenn. was always a struggle. I hated having to coordinate buses and flights while in the middle of finals. 

Here’s what I learned about booking flights home, so you don’t have to struggle like I did.  

Plan Ahead 

The first step to saving on holiday travel is planning ahead. If you wait until the last minute to buy plane tickets, you’ll probably pay more. You may even be completely out of luck and not find any flights that work for you. 

You can sign up for travel alerts through Hipmunk.com, which aggregates flights from most major airlines. You can also look at Google flight alerts or sign up for emails for your favorite airline.  

Learn about what airlines fly out of your hometown’s airport and what alternative routes there are. For example, if you’re struggling to find cheap flights coming out of Louisville, look at Cincinnati’s airport. You might have to get creative and look at airports you never consider. 

According to the travel website Skyscanner, the best month to buy plane tickets for Christmas is in October. Yes, it might seem crazy to book tickets for winter break when the leaves are barely falling off the trees, but you could save lots of money. 

Carpool with Other Students 

If you’re at a big university, you might find someone who’s also traveling to your destination for the holidays. If you carpool with them, you’ll save money on transportation while also dividing the driving time. 

I did this a lot in college because I didn’t have a car, but I only needed to travel a couple hours for Thanksgiving break. It was easy finding someone who was also going that way.  

If you’re not traveling to a popular city, you should put out feelers ASAP. Make a shareable post on Facebook, put a physical notice in your dorm’s common area or ask your college advisor if there are any official student carshare groups. 

Look at Buses 

Even though the US isn’t known for its public transportation system, buses can be a decent way to save money on travel if you’re going somewhere close. For example, you can find MegaBus tickets as little as $5 if you book way in advance. Some of these buses include WiFi and let you pick your seat beforehand. 

Buses almost always take longer than driving, but are a good option if you’re on a budget and have time to kill. If you’re lucky, you can find a fellow student who’s also traveling by bus and book your tickets together.  

Compare Alternative Dates 

If you’re flying home for winter break, you probably have some leeway on when you arrive and when you need to leave. Being flexible on travel dates can save you a lot of money, especially during the holidays. 

When you look at flights, you can often look at dates with one to three days of flexibility. Flights that leave or arrive on Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often less expensive than weekends. You should also use an incognito browser when you book tickets. 

If you find an especially good deal that coincides with class, ask your professor if you can get an excused absence. Some may be ok with you taking a final early or if you miss the first day of classes for the new semester. 

Again, ask your professors about this ahead of time. They may be more lenient if you’re asking in early November instead of the week before finals. 

Use Credit Card Points 

If you or your parents have a travel rewards credit card, see if they have enough points to book a flight. This works best if you book early, because flights often increase in price as the dates get closer. 

Travel rewards programs all work differently so it’s good to compare offers before you book a flight. Your parents can book your flights using their account, or they can transfer points to your personal account. This doesn’t work for every credit card, so call and ask if there’s a way to do it for free. It may be easier to do if you’re an authorized user on the account. 

Read the Fine Print 

Nowadays airlines are trying to cut corners everywhere, by trimming seats and charging more for basic amenities. When you buy your flight, read through the ticket agreement to understand what’s included and what’s extra. In some cases, a carry-on bag costs extra just like a checked bag. But a checked bag may be cheaper than a carry-on. 

If snacks aren’t provided, bring your own beforehand. Also, try not to pack your bags completely full. If you’re like me, you’ll have Christmas presents and new clothes to take back with you. And who wants to pay a $30 carry-on fee?  

Understand What Your University Provides 

If you’re lucky, your college may have some free transportation options. For example, my university was in Bloomington, Ind., an hour away from Indianapolis. There was a free shuttle to the Indianapolis airport that left every two hours. 

There’s also a student-only bus that goes from Indy to Chicago and Chicago-area suburbs. This is only available during the holidays and is very affordable.  

The key to saving on holiday travel is to plan ahead, ask other people and do lots of research. You may discover someone in your dorm who’s driving through your city on their home or someone who also takes the bus home.  

 

The post How to Plan and Save on Holiday Travel appeared first on MintLife Blog.

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International travel: Is it time to dust off the passport?

I’ve been laying low the last five months, my passport safely tucked into my desk drawer awaiting the world’s re-opening.

Like you, I’ve missed travel. Especially as summer winds down, and the sun sets a few minutes later every night, I’ve found myself daydreaming of returning to the proverbial road.

Sure, I’ve been road tripping, camping and entertaining myself domestically as far as my imagination can take me over these months. But there’s nothing that feeds my soul quite like crossing a border.

While most borders across the world are still closed to U.S. passport holders, I’ve not only started to seriously think about when an international trip might be right for me, but I also did something a little crazy this week.

I booked a trip to Mexico for September.

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What is and isn’t possible

Let’s be honest, Mexico was never high on my list of places to travel for 2020. Before COVID-19, my wandering sights were set on exploring much more exotic destinations this year like Uzbekistan, Guyana and the Apulia region of Italy, from which my family migrated.

In a world without a pandemic, my autumn travel plan was to spend late September in the Marquesas islands of French Polynesia, celebrating a big 50th birthday of one of my dearest friends and fellow points collectors.

As things have begun to slowly open up over the last months, my friend and I have had a million conversations discussing if there might be somewhere other than a Zoom birthday party where we could safely celebrate half a century. As you might remember, I have high expectations for celebrating milestone birthdays.

As we’ve contemplated if it’s safe and smart to actually think about international birthday travel right now, we set a few guidelines on our planning:

  • Places far away where we wouldn’t want to get stuck are off limits.
  • Any plans we make have to be fully cancelable.
  • There must be sunshine and water at the destination.
  • We must be able to pay with points.
  • Destinations with a 14-day arrival quarantine won’t work.
  • The Caribbean isn’t an option (if your birthday falls in the middle of an extremely active hurricane season).

With the big birthday getting closer each week, I’ve been paying more attention to possibilities as well as all the deals that keep filling up my inbox. Then, when Hyatt announced their new Work from Hyatt deal this week, it got me thinking: let’s plan a trip to Cabo.

See related: Can we safely return to sleeping in hotels?

How we’ll get there

From Portland, Oregon (my COVID-19 home base), Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, is an easy flight. There is plenty of sun and a lot of options to plan a refundable trip on points.

A large percentage of Cabo’s resorts have reopened since June, both requiring mask-wearing in public areas and limiting occupancy to 30%. And while the ban for land crossings at the Mexico-U.S. border has been extended to Sept. 21, air travel between the two countries is not (and has never been) restricted.

The birthday trip is still a month away – and in 2020, almost anything could happen in the next four weeks – but here’s what we’ve got planned:

  • One beautiful week looking at the Pacific Ocean from an oceanfront room at The Cape (a Thompson Hotel).
  • Flights to and from Portland’s PDX to Cabo San Lucas’ SJD (one way on American Airlines miles and one way on Alaska Airlines, using a cash credit from a different trip canceled due to coronavirus).

We picked The Cape because it’s a small boutique resort known for its secluded location, ocean views and amazing copper-plated freestanding tubs in the majority of its rooms. (OK, this wasn’t actually a deciding factor, but I do get very excited about a room with a good bath tub since resort spas are still closed.).

While not a Hyatt property, Thompson Hotels is an independent brand affiliated with Hyatt, meaning you can use your World of Hyatt points for a stay in a smaller, upscale property.

At 25,000 points per night, the five-night reservation came to a total of 125,000 points earned on my World of Hyatt Credit Card. In non-pandemic times I would likely consider that to be a ton of points for a single trip to Mexico, but since I haven’t used a Hyatt point in months (besides for one quick hotel experiment) and because it’s a big birthday celebration, it seems a reasonable redemption. The reservation is also refundable up to 24 hours before arrival.

American, Alaska, Delta, Southwest and United are all currently operating flights into SJD. From Portland’s PDX, I found a good redemption via Phoenix (PHX) on American for 17,500 points and $31 in taxes. As an American Airlines Executive Platinum elite member, I can cancel this award ticket at any time without penalty or fee, so booking it now was pretty risk-free.

Taxes flying out of Mexico back to the U.S. are considerably higher (to the tune of $100-plus), so on this end I opted to book a paid Alaska Airlines flight via San Jose using the balance from this year’s travel refunds. Alaska Airlines has also extended its travel waiver, allowing you to cancel any ticket booked before Sept. 8 for a full credit. Again, I felt like I had nothing to lose.

See related: How to change your travel plans when you booked with rewards

Final thoughts

Am I certain it will be safe to travel to Cabo San Lucas in September? I honestly have no idea. I have, however, future-proofed my plan from the outset, and I know that even if Icho ose to cancel this big birthday booking the day before, I have very little to lose.

I’ll be keeping my eyes on the news in Cabo and make a final decision if I feel comfortable to travel closer to departure. For now, I’m excited to at least have a plan to use my passport again and hope for some September sunshine and horizons.

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Uber is offering its subscription service for half-off

If you’re a frequent Uber user, odds are you’ve heard of Uber Pass. Much like Lyft Pink, the subscription service offers discounted rides and free food delivery for a monthly fee. Since launching in 2018, the program expanded to more than 200 cities across the U.S., including New York City, Seattle, Portland, St. Louis, Honolulu, …

Source: thepointsguy.com

How to Cancel A Trip or Vacation

No matter how thoroughly you plan your trip, last-minute changes to your personal schedule can still happen. If you need to alter or cancel your travel plans it can be a serious headache—and a lot of lost money might be next. Still, in many cases, cancelling a trip is unavoidable. A sudden family emergency may come up, your work may need you for a huge assignment, or you or your travel companion might unexpectedly fall ill. Life happens — coronavirus pandemics happen. While some cancellation fees are unavoidable, there are a few simple things to keep in mind when these things happen. 

If you need to cancel an upcoming trip, don’t panic. There are steps you can take to mitigate your losses, reduce your money stress, or even secure a rescheduled vacation. Check out these tips that can help you avoid paying full cancellation fees the next time you need to cancel a trip.

  • Know the policies
    • Cancelling a Hotel or Rental
    • Cancelling a Flight
    • Cancelling a Rental Car
    • Cancelling a Tour or Excursion
  • Cancellation Tips: Boosting Your Chances of a Refund
    • Cancel as Early as Possible
    • Just Ask, You Never Know
    • Call, Don’t Email
    • Seek Alternatives to Money
    • Keep that Code
  • Booking Travel Insurance

Know the Policies

First things first: when booking big ticket items for travel, it’s important to make sure you read the fine print. Ideally, you should make sure you know the ins and outs of the airline, hotel, or travel agency’s policies before you enter any credit card info. This includes their cancellation policy. 

Cancelling a Hotel or Rental

For hotels, I usually book with Hotels.com or a similar service—that’s because their cancellation policy often includes general refunds at most hotels if you cancel before a certain date, and sometimes a voucher for a future stay for cases where refunds might not be available. 

If you’ve rented a vacation home from a site like Airbnb, always check the trip cancellation policy listed on the rental profile. While the service might have its own general cancellation policies, individual property managers likely have their own set of requirements and deadlines for cancellation too. 

I also usually go a step further and always make a note on my calendar on the last day it is free to cancel.

Cancelling a Flight

For flights, you should know that federal law states you have 24 hours to cancel your trip from the time you book your flight if you book it at least seven days before the departure date without having to pay a fee—you can check Transportation.gov for further details. Bear in mind that this only applies to flights booked through the carrier itself, not flights booked through third-party websites. Some airlines, like Southwest, have much more generous cancellation policies than others. Though, in many cases, you’ll at least be able to put the money you spent on your flight toward a trip in the future. This varies significantly from airline to airline, so checking trip cancellation policies ahead of time is a must whenever you book a flight.

Cancelling a Rental Car

If you have booked a prepaid rental car at your destination, you should be able to find their cancellation policy on their company website. Most—like Avis and Hertz, two common rental car companies—will charge a fee for cancellations more than 24 hours after you’ve made the booking, and might charge even greater fees if you cancel your tip within 24 hours of the day you’re scheduled to pick up the car.

Cancelling a Tour or Excursion

Tours and excursions that you’ve booked in advance can also be cancelled, but whether you get a full, partial, or no refund will largely depend on the company you’ve booked through. It’s a good idea to pick up the phone and call the agency to see whether there is any flexibility in their trip cancellation policy.

Cancellation tips: boosting your chances of a refund

Cancellation policies imposed by large companies can sometimes be set in stone—but sometimes they might not be. Especially for smaller companies and hospitality services, there might be a bit of wiggle room you can take advantage of if you need your vacation cancelled. Here’s what I usually do to increase my odds of a refund when I need to cancel a trip. 

Cancel As Early As Possible

Just like most industries, time is money in hospitality—so if you do suddenly find out that your trip must be cancelled, don’t put it off. The minute you know you can’t go, start making calls to cancel all your plans. Begin with the big-ticket items, like flights and hotel reservations, and work your way down to smaller things like tours and restaurant reservations.

Often, travel services are hesitant to offer refunds because they might not have time to sell your spot to a new customer. That makes it important to start early because if the hotel, resort, or cruise line has time to resell your tickets, you have a higher chance of receiving a refund.

Just Ask, You Never Know

Even if you think a reservation is hopeless, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Once, I had to cancel a trip due to a vaccination error (that was completely my fault). I had to cancel my entire trip and found out the night before! Instead of giving up, I called and explained the situation. 

The hotel gave me a full refund because they received tons of walk in service and, since it was high season, they knew they would find a new customer for the room immediately. That was a pleasant surprise that I didn’t see coming! Not bad for cancelling a vacation last minute. Ultimately, you don’t know what kind of customer service and travel deals are available unless you actively seek them out.

Call, Don’t Email

Notice I said start making calls, not sending emails. Talking to a person, and especially the right person, can make a huge difference in getting a partial or even full refund. Often, it helps to speak to someone in management, as high up as possible. Remember, a manager is much more likely to waive a cancellation fee or refund your money than an hourly employee. 

When you first call it’s likely someone at the front desk will answer the phone. You can then ask to speak to managers and slowly move your way up the chain of command—just be sure that you’re polite. It’s not the front desk employee’s fault that they have to enforce whatever vacation cancellation policy the hotel or airline has in place. 

Seek Alternatives to Money

If a vendor can’t refund your cash, your next inquiry should be about any sort of alternatives they can offer other than money. This is often something like a voucher for future service, or some portion of your money put toward a later booking. On the trip I mentioned before, where I had to cancel because of missing vaccinations, I had tons of tours booked. Although I wasn’t able to get a refund for them, they did promise to reschedule all the tours when I did get a chance to take my trip. 

If you do get any offer for future service, be sure to have them send it to you in writing. I kept the emails from the tour companies, and when I finally did go a couple of months later, I conveniently rebooked all the tours!

Keep That Code

If you manage to score any sort of refund or voucher for a future booking, write down any confirmation code they send you and keep it somewhere safe. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your bank accounts or credit card statement and make sure that the money has been refunded after a couple of days. If it’s not, you’ll have their confirmation email and code in writing so you can call and inquire after your refund. It’s also wise to look into using a travel card, which might be able to offer you some protection against difficult refund situations.

Booking Travel Insurance

One of the best ways to avoid the hassle of travel cancellations is to purchase a travel insurance policy. Travel insurance is generally fairly inexpensive—around 5% to 10% of the total cost of your trip, depending on a few details like your age, the kind of trip you’re taking, and how many people you plan on adding to the policy.

Travel insurance can also be helpful to have even if you do end up going on the trip, but something goes wrong, like an airline losing your luggage, or getting injured while abroad and needing emergency medical insurance. The expense might seem like a hassle on top of all your other bookings, but the more you stand to lose from a sudden cancellation, the smarter it usually is to invest in protection for your plans. And even budget-friendly vacations might benefit from being insured. After all, you never know what might happen.

When traveling, you want to make every dollar count. Make sure you know your travel companies policies, you’re diligent about calling and speaking with managers, and you insure trips if you can. With the right planning and foresight, even an unexpected trip cancellation doesn’t have to be a disaster. 

The post How to Cancel A Trip or Vacation appeared first on MintLife Blog.

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Escape your home for a safe holiday staycation

With the 2020 holidays upon us, it’s likely you’ve spent some time considering how you’ll have a COVID-safe celebration. Should you stay? Should you go? Is travel to your family even an option this year as some states impose new travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine periods?

Perhaps for safety’s sake, you’ve decided to stay put. But you also recognize that being “home for the holidays” doesn’t have the same cozy appeal as it used to when you’ve already been home working from home for months on end. What you might need is a staycation – the getaway for when you can’t get away.

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Get away for the holidays without going away

Traditionally, when we think about holiday travel, we’re most likely planning how to get ourselves to a faraway destination – whether that’s to see family across the country, or to flee from some combination of family, holiday hustles and winter weather.

This year, I’ve personally decided I won’t be among the holiday crowds attempting to fly on the busiest travel days of the year. Instead, I’ll be sticking closer to home, celebrating in my own city with a staycation – and testing a theory that there is no place like a Hyatt for the holidays.

If you’re planning to stay close to home like me, here’s some good news: Your credit card points work just as well for living it up in luxury in your hometown as they do when you’re on the road.

Some more good news: You’ll save lots of points and dollars by not flying anywhere this holiday – so go ahead and book the suite!

How to use your credit card points to book a staycation

If you live in or near a city, finding a hotel to tuck into for a few days over the holiday period should be pretty straightforward.

To plan a staycation, I normally start by checking what’s available near me by searching the website for each of the hotel groups in whose loyalty programs I participate.

Here in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, I found plenty of options at varying price points when I looked up Marriott, IHG, Hilton and Hyatt – the four hotel programs in which I currently have points.

For example, a few weeks ago, I decided to take an early holiday staycation at the Hyatt Centric Downtown Portland. I chose the hotel because of its location right in the middle of the city, and because Hyatt has a 25% points-back offer on award stays and free parking for The World of Hyatt Credit Card holders through the end of the year.

I paid 30,000 World of Hyatt points for a two-night stay, got 7,500 points back, and got upgraded to a suite thanks to my World of Hyatt elite status. Without points, the suite would have cost $355 dollars a night – plus the free valet parking saved me another $47 a day. I was able to get a $804 value for 22,500 rewards points. Even though I was less than two miles from my actual house, I felt a world away.

How to use travel rewards to book a staycation

If you don’t already have a hotel-branded rewards credit card for earning points in a specific hotel program like World of Hyatt, or if you live in a location where there aren’t many chain hotels, you’ll likely have more luck booking a staycation using travel rewards points.

You can book directly through the respective program’s travel planning portal. Flexible bank programs include Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou points.

Once you find a hotel you want to visit, and before you make the booking, you’ll want to check to make sure the hotel amenities that excite you for your staycation are going to be open and accessible.

Other than being snuggled up in a warm bed that I didn’t make myself, the best part of my staycation weekend at the Hyatt Centric Portland was the food.

Masia, the hotel’s signature restaurant designed by Portland’s award-winning Spanish chef Jose Chesa, was finally open and serving after a long COVID closure. Since I live in a city where indoor dining still hasn’t made a full comeback (and is now taking a pause for the holiday season), it was a rather delightful experience to spend two mornings lingering over a long breakfast.

If you’re booking more than a week in advance, you should also make sure your reservation is flexible or cancelable should your own plans change, or the COVID regulations in your state or county change and require the hotel to amend their offerings.

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