All posts in Hot Topics

U.S. Customs & Border Protection encourages travelers to “Know Before You Go”

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

us customsAs the busiest three months of international travel approach, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encourages travelers to “Know Before You Go” when traveling to the United States or returning home this summer. CBP officers at international airports, cruise terminals and land border ports of entry around the country and at Preclearance facilities around the world are prepared for the additional traffic expected this summer. Last summer, CBP processed more than 108.3 million international travelers at U.S. ports of entry.

“The United States has been and continues to be a welcoming country and CBP remains committed to facilitating lawful travel to the United States,” said Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan. “In the spirit of this commitment, CBP has deployed innovative programs and technology including Trusted Traveler Programs, Automated Passport Control kiosks and Mobile Passport Control to make the arrival process as efficient and as quick as possible while maintaining our dual mission of border security and travel facilitation.”

CBP encourages travelers to plan ahead to ensure a smooth and efficient processing experience. Use these tips to help you prepare. Continue reading →

Cash vs. Miles Study Finds 11 Travel Reward Cards Beat 2% Cash Back

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

travel reward credit cards

In a recent study, MileCards.com ranked 38 travel rewards cards with points that can be used for domestic flights, including the primary airline mile cards of the 5 largest airlines, along with the bank point rewards cards from the 10 largest banks.  Here are the key findings:

Eleven travel rewards cards beat 2% cash back

·         11 of the 38 travel rewards cards ranked came out ahead of a no annual fee 2% cash back card for domestic flight rewards when factoring annual fees. And three significantly outperformed.

·         The Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Amex Everyday Preferred, and Chase Sapphire Preferred each offer over $2,000 worth of reward value over 3 years, compared to $1,687 for a 2% cash back card.

best travel rewards credit cards

Only two airline cards came out ahead, both from Southwest

·         If you’re looking for domestic flight awards, sticking to a single airline card isn’t a good bet unless you fly enough to cover the annual fee with bag fee waivers or other perks. And even then, you’re often better off putting your spending on a different card.

·         Two things put airline cards at a disadvantage. First, most only earn a basic 1 mile per dollar spent with few bonus categories like dining or groceries. Second, excluding Southwest, the average price of a domestic award in miles is a high 37,332 miles round trip.

·         Southwest is the exception. With a generous sign on bonus and anniversary bonuses, plus very low prices of 13,722 points on average for a round trip flight, the flight value from its two credit cards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier, and Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus from Chase, beat a basic 2% cash back card.

When paying no annual fee, cash back usually wins

·         When travel rewards are involved, an annual fee can pay off. All of the cards that came out ahead of a 2% cash back card carry an annual fee.  But for consumers who want to pay no annual fee, a 2% cash back card like the CIti Double Cash is usually a better bet than using a travel rewards card for domestic flight awards.

·         The Discover It Miles, with a generous first-year offer that effectively offers 3x points on all spending, is the only no annual fee travel rewards card that matches a 2% cash back card for earning power.

·         Bank of America customers with high account balances can also get better than 2% rewards via the Bank of America Travel Rewards card using Bank of America’s Preferred Rewards program.

Personal spending habits matter

·         It’s important to take into consideration personal spending habits when evaluating a card. For people who spend more than the average $3,008 a year on dining away from home, a card with a 2x or 3x bonus on dining like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve can outshine the Barclaycard Arrival Plus.  For example, a consumer who spends $6,000 a year on dining could earn $2,252 in flight awards net of fees over 3 years with a Chase Sapphire Reserve versus $2,104 with a Barclaycard Arrival Plus.

While the MileCards study used the average spending habits by category reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, using a calculator that calculates card rewards based on personal spending habits can help give a better sense of which cards will outperform. Read the full study on MileCards.com.

Best travel apps you’re missing out on

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

top travel apps

Credit Donkey, a popular credit card comparison website, recently published their list of favorite travel apps.  Spoiler Alert: ExpertFlyer Seat Alerts is one of their top picks along with 70 some odd worthy competitors.

Read the full post here.

 

Exploring Florida — The weirdest state in the union

When people think of Florida, the standard attractions come to mind: Disney, pretty beaches, rich Latin culture, etc. Travel blogger at OneWeirdGlobe.com, and guidebook author, Chris Backe, is working on his latest travel book, “What the Florida” and, like his other work, this look at Florida is anything but standard.

WATCH our interview with Chris to learn about the strange and unknown attractions that are worth a look-see if you’re visiting the Sunshine State.

You’ve been busy exploring the unexplored sites and attractions of Florida for your new book. Tell us how this came about?

Florida has a long history of being the weirdest state. Maybe it has something to do with the type of people it attracts, or maybe it’s just the hot weather that makes everyone a little nuts! Florida attracted a unique crowd of people, and as the reputation of the state grew, they chose to open plenty of quirky roadside attractions. Some of them are still open today, like the Weeki Wachee mermaids that entertain and delight. Others have been re-opened, like Ted Smallwood’s Store in Chokoloskee — a general store first established in the early 20th century.

As for me, I started blogging about the offbeat side of things in 2011 while living in South Korea. I had been exploring the country every weekend for three years… and was beginning to get a little bored. I began seeking out the places even the locals hadn’t heard about. A couple of years on, I had gotten into the habit of discovering the offbeat everywhere I went. When my wife and I decided to spend the winter in Florida, it was only natural to find the weird places… and boy there were tons!

What are some of the weird and exotic things to do and see in Florida?

Solomon's Castle in Ona

Solomon’s Castle in Ona

One of my favorite places is Solomon’s Castle in Ona, Florida. Imagine a guy that bought some land in Florida, only to realize it was partially located on a swamp. Undeterred, he proceeded to build a castle out of aluminum printing plates discarded by a local newspaper. In time, he added dozens of stained glass pieces, metal sculptures, and many other pieces of art. It’s a rapid-fire tour full of puns, and a whole lot of fun.

Another cool place is the American Space Museum in Titusville. This is the same town as the much more famous Kennedy Space Center, where all the rockets launch from. The American Space Museum is a more behind-the-scenes look at the many people involved in making the space program a success. There are some wonderful pieces of history here, and many of them are available for kids to touch and play with.

Where do you recommend travelers of varying tastes and demographics stay?

I don’t really get into hotels in the book since there are so many tastes and things to consider. For places to go, the 90-plus places in the book are aimed at a general population, with dozens of places that are kid-friendly and family-friendly.

Millennials
National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee – once a month this place of serious science opens its doors to a public tour. Inside is one seriously huge magnet, a dozen Guinness World Records, and a cryogenics lab you can peek inside.

Young Families
Tallahassee Automobile and Collectibles Museum in Tallahassee – a great look at the cars of the past to the generations of today.

Couples
World Erotic Art Museum in Miami – a “not safe for work” look at erotica across the world and the centuries.

Boomers
Burger Beast Museum in Miami – a surprising look back at the history of hamburgers and restaurants.

American Space Museum in Titusville

American Space Museum in Titusville

Adventure/thrill Seekers
Key West Shipwreck Museum – get in the spirit of the past with a kitschy tour showing the treasures and wrecking industry. I’d also recommend the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville for an exceptional launch simulator with all the warnings you’d expect from an awesome roller coaster ride.

Are there any timely events coming up over the summer that folks should know about and maybe check out?

June has a couple of fun pirate festivals — see the Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival in Fort Walton Beach or the Cocoa Beach Pirate Festival in Cocoa Beach. For a wackier time, check out the Celebrity Mascot Games in Orlando and see professional sports mascots compete in crazy games for charity.

For July, get to Key West for the Key Lime Festival. Lots of pies and cocktails. Also in Key West is the Hemingway Days Festival — whether you look like the famous author or just appreciate his work, there’s a lot going on.

Feeling far away without leaving US soil

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Although in many ways, there couldn’t be a better time for international travel — The US dollar is kicking it, and once costly European destinations, like Paris, are very affordable. Despite these golden opportunities, many travel-lovers are skittish about traveling to Europe after a spate of terror attacks.  If you are among this cohort, we’ve got some local destination alternatives that may satiate your appetite for some far off culture, color, and cuisine.

In a recent interview, Jessica Norah, part of a travel blogging duo at Independent Travel Cats, tells us how we can experience a bit of Europe and Asia right here in the US.

WATCH our interview with Jessica Norah, IndependentTravelCats.com

Tell us about your blog, independenttravelcats.com, and the type of readers you attract?

Independent Travel Cats is a travel blog about international travel for independent travels, with a focus on couples travel, history, and mid to luxury range travelers. I attract readers who really want to know a lot of information about a destination as I write very detailed posts. Our readers are sophisticated and tend to have more disposable income than the “average” reader. I also co-run another travel blog with my husband, Laurence Norah called Finding the Universe, which is more focused on travel photography and adventure travel.

Many people would love to travel abroad this year, particularly since the dollar is so strong. But terrorism looms large and families are hesitant about leaving the US.  Can you give us some domestic alternatives to Europe and Asia that offer the feel, flavor, and flair of far reaching destinations?

The U.S. has some obvious more “exotic” locations like Hawaii which has wonderful beaches, volcano parks, and tropical plants. You also have Alaska where you can see glaciers, whales and polar bears. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is another place where it is easy to feel like you are in a foreign country.

In terms of places that feel like Europe. You can also take a “trip to Denmark” by spending a weekend in the little town of Solvang, California. It was founded by a group of Danes as a Danish colony and much of the architecture is Danish. You can eat Danish food, buy Danish dress, and appreciate the Danish history and architecture here.

For a taste of Spain, consider St. Augustine in Florida, it is the oldest city in the country and still has a lot of its Spanish colonial architecture. Or head to New Mexico. Santa Fe has a strong Spanish heritage as does the Old Town of Albuquerque. The central Plaza area of Santa Fe still retains a very European vibe and the city has some of the oldest architecture in the country.

For a taste of Germany, consider Hermann, Missouri or Leavenworth, Washington. Or join in on a Oktoberfest celebration held throughout the country.

Looking for a castle or stately home, plan a visit to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, Monticello in Virginia, Hearst Castle in California, or Stan Hwet Hall in Ohio. There is also a Tuscan style castle winery called Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley.

Looking for a long rail trip but don’t want to head to Europe, you can book an epic train journey on Amtrak and go across the entire country, discovering new places along the way.

Can’t fly to Switzerland, visit Vail, Aspen, Mammoth Lakes, and Tahoe all have great skiing and snowboarding.

Want to go on safari, The Wilds in central Ohio is a private, non-profit safari park where visitors can see rhinos, giraffes, camels, and other animals in open air enclosures in jeeps.

Experience the desert at the Great Sands Dunes National Park in Colorado.

For a good taste of Asia, you’ll want to head to larger cities like New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. They all have large Asian American communities and you can find areas like Chinatown and Japantown in these cities where you can eat Asian food, buy Asia products, and be in an atmosphere that can transport you to China or Japan.

For those willing to visit our northern neighbor, Canada has retained more of a European connection than the U.S. and places like Vancouver and Montreal have a strong Euro vibe. This year happens to be Canada’s 150th anniversary so visitors can expect many special events and festivities for an unforgettable stay.

If you were to suggest some exotic vacation destinations in the US specifically for couples, what would you suggest?

It depends on the couple of course, but I’d recommend winter holiday lovers head to Vail or Aspen Colorado, beach and tropical vacation lovers head to Hawaii, art lovers to Santa Fe, city trippers to NYC or San Francisco, and those looking for a bit of Tuscany head to Napa Valley.

Families?

Hawaii is always a great destination for families. Hearst Castle is a fun family-friendly visitor attraction, large cities like NYC have tons of family-friendly activities, and there are also safari parks in Ohio and California.

Boomers?

Maybe an Alaska cruises, a trip to Santa Fe, wine tasting in Napa Valley or Sonoma, or a weekend in Solvang for a taste of Denmark.

Any special hints or tips for making these trips extra special or for getting a better deal?

Go some place that you are excited to visit, not to a place that feels like a second choice. Also, remember that exotic just means some place different so don’t just consider places that feel like Europe or Asia, but places where you’ll experience new things. Sometimes these places are much closer to home than we expect. As with any trip, plan ahead well in advance and book early for best deals.