Google Translate: Free, Real-Time Language Translation While Traveling

gtranslateicoBack in 2014, Google bought Word Lens, a neat app that translated a few languages in real time using your smartphone’s camera. The live translation feature has been integrated into the Google Translate app (Android and iOS) and now works with 27 languages. If you snap a picture, it works with 37 languages.

This means when traveling to a foreign country, just point your phone at a restaurant menu, grocery store item, or street sign and you’ll see it in your home language. This counts as a deal for me because I would pay money for such a convenient and useful app. But it’s free, and you don’t even need an internet connection to use it (assuming you download the appropriate language packs ahead of time).

Here’s a cool video demonstration (embedded below, direct link):

Here’s the announcement on the official Google blog:

We started out with seven languages—English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish—and today we’re adding 20 more. You can now translate to and from English and Bulgarian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Filipino, Finnish, Hungarian, Indonesian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, Swedish, Turkish and Ukrainian. You can also do one-way translations from English to Hindi and Thai. (Or, try snapping a pic of the text you’d like translated—we have a total of 37 languages in camera mode.)

There is also a conversation mode where you can speak and it will provide instant translation of conversations across 32 languages (good for interactions at hotels, train stations, or taxis). I believe you’ll need an internet connection for this, but it supposedly now works better with slower connections.

I tried it out and while it really only works with clearly printed text, it is still an amazing application of augmented reality. I look forward to having it expand to even more languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

AutoSlash Review: Car Rental Price Drop Tracker

autoslashfb180Here’s a quick tip that I’ve been using regularly this summer for saving money on car rentals.

A quick primer on car rental reservations. When you make a reservation at most car rental shops, you simply agree to a price and make a non-binding reservation without giving any payment information. You can cancel at any time, without penalty. Technically, even if you just don’t show up there is no penalty besides bad karma. The flipside is that they overbook and occasionally your subcompact turns into a Ford Crown Victoria.

First, book your car rental as early as possible using the best deal you can find on your own, be it through a business account, promo code you found online, or using an opaque booking site like Hotwire or Costco Travel. As there are no penalties for cancellation, so you want to start the process as soon as possible.

(Do not use AutoSlash to make your initial reservation. Well, you can try, and then just wait for the future price drop notifications, but you may not get a very good price initially.)

Next, enter your reservation information into AutoSlash.com to monitor price drops. I first wrote about AutoSlash back in 2011, and while their service has changed a bit due to industry pushback, it can still be a valuable service. (Their initial search service excludes many major agencies, but their price-drop tracking service includes them all including Avis and Hertz.)

AutoSlash will then continuously search for a lower price using your dates and preferences, often using coupon codes that you may not know about. If they can find something lower, they will e-mail you. If the new deal looks better than your old one, you can go through their site and book the new deal. Just cancel your old reservation afterward and you’ll have taken advantage of the price drop with no fees or penalties.

I just went from a $66 one-day rental with Alamo to $29 with Avis:

autoslash2

Some potential minor issues:

  • You may be presented with quotes from lesser-known rental agencies. I normally try to support smaller businesses, but in this case I am wary of being improperly charged for a dent or scratch on the $25,000+ vehicle they are lending me. I have used Dollar/Budget/Alamo/National/Enterprise without any problems.
  • The lower price quotes may not offer pickup at the exact location you booked initially, especially if not at an airport. Depending on your situation, the savings may be worth a bit of a walk or a short taxi ride.
  • You may get a lot of price drop e-mails, and also multiple confirmations of new bookings. I know that for one reservation where I re-booked multiple price drops, I probably accumulated over 20 e-mails.
  • Because AutoSlash uses promo codes it pulls from around the web, I have read stories that a rental agency can deny a price quote because it claims that you weren’t eligible to use that promo code. I have never run into a problem like this (and would otherwise use promo codes from the internet anyway), but I thought that I should mention it.

Even if AutoSlash never e-mails you, at least you have some additional peace of mind that you got close to the best deal on your auto rental. All for free and with minimal effort.

AirHelp, Refund.Me, AirTaxBack: Get Money Back For Cancelled, Delayed, or Missed Flights

airhelpHave you been on a delayed, cancelled, or overbooked flight to/from Europe within the last within the last three years? Ever just missed a flight? You could be entitled up to $800 from the airline, or a refund of your taxes and fees.

AirHelp and Refund.me are services that help travelers claim compensation for certain flight problems. Too often, airlines convince folks to settle for food vouchers or drink coupons when they can claim cold, hard cash. Right now, they only appear to work with flights to and from the European Union. Specifically:

The flight passenger rights stated in the EC 261/2004. apply if you are leaving the EU with any airline or arriving in the EU with an airline registered in the EU (or Iceland, Norway or Switzerland). AirHelp helps passengers from all countries who have experienced delayed, canceled, or overbooked flights that are subject to this EU regulation.

You provide them with your information, and if they can use EU regulations to get your compensation (supposedly they’ll even take them to court), they’ll send it over (after taking a 25% cut). If they can’t help, there is no cost for you. It seems like if you’ve already experienced a delay or cancellation, it wouldn’t hurt to give them a shot. I haven’t had the opportunity to use either of these companies, so I can’t say which is better.

AirTaxback.com is a related service that helps travelers get back Taxes, Fees and Charges (TFC’s) if you for any reason never went on a scheduled flight. Perhaps the flight was cancelled, you or a family member was sick, or even if you simply were late for the flight. Again, this appears to be based on European Union flight laws. They charges a finders fee in advance (from free to €10) after they determine that your application is valid and you are due a refund.

We estimate that in 2012 alone, airlines flying in and out of Europe held on to over €3.5 Billion in Taxes, Fees and Charges belonging to passengers that booked a flight but didn’t travel” We are looking forward to working with the great people from AirTaxBack as this is one more area where most passengers are currently unaware of their rights and are met with indifference, when trying to claim themselves.

Citi Prestige and Global Entry Application Fee Reimbursement Experience

citiprestigereal3

After researching the details for my Citi Prestige Card review, I went ahead and applied for one since I felt I could get over $1,400 of value in exchange for the $450 annual fee. Part of that would come from the $100 application fee credit they give you when you apply for the Global Entry Program.

(Side note: I applied for the card and actually got an instant rejection online. Naturally, I was disappointed and planned on calling their reconsideration line in a few days. But before I got the chance, I was sent the card in a fancy welcome package via Next-Day Air. Curious!)

Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check Highlights. Here is a brief description of the Global Entry program from the Citi Prestige page:

Global Entry Membership allows international travelers expedited entry upon arrival in United States, by using automated kiosks when entering the United States. Once approved, Global Entry members can use automated kiosks in most major U.S. airports, rather than having to go through the traditional arrival process. There is a $100 application fee payable to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) which administers the program. As a benefit of the Citi Prestige Card, Citi will provide one statement credit for this $100 application fee, once the fee is charged to the account. The $100 application fee credit will reset once every 5 years.

Global Entry automatically includes membership to TSA Pre-Check, which provides expedited security screening at participating airports in the US for eligible travelers. If in the (ideally shorter and faster-moving) TSA Pre-Check line, you won’t have to remove your belt, shoes, light jacket, or take out your your laptop from carry-on. See this Trusted Traveler Program comparison chart for details. TSA Pre-Check is open to U.S. citizens and U.S. lawful permanent residents.

You can also just apply to TSA Pre-Check separately, but that costs $85 on its own and also only lasts 5 years. Considering it would be reimbursed either way, it was a no-brainer for me to just apply to Global Entry for $100. Here is a brief summary of the qualification criteria for Global Entry:

To qualify you must be a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent residents of the U.S., and citizens of certain other countries are eligible for Global Entry membership provided that they:
*Have never been convicted of a criminal offense in any country
*Have never been found in violation of customs, immigration or agricultural laws
*Do not provide false or incomplete information on their application
*Are not the subject of an investigation by any Federal, State, or local law enforcement agency.

Global Entry Application Process. I applied on 5/6 and was given “conditional approval” on 5/10. That meant that I was allowed to go online and schedule my in-person interview at my nearest Global Entry Enrollment Center, which for me (and probably most people) was at the US Customs and Border Patrol office at an international airport. I could have gotten a spot in under a week, but based on my availability the best time was 8 days later on 5/18.

The interview involved bringing my passport and one additional form of identification, answering some brief interview questions, standing for a mugshot and thumbprints, and finally watching a short 5-minute video on the rules of Global Entry. It took about 30 minutes including wait time.

That same day, I was notified online that I was approved and given my Global Entry membership number which can be used as part of the Trusted Traveler Program. I quickly typed this number into my frequent flier accounts in the hopes of getting expedited TSA Pre-Check lines for my upcoming travel. A few days later I received a physical membership card via US postal mail. The Global Entry card can be used for border crossing by car or boat.

Citi Prestige Fee Reimbursement Timeline. The terms and conditions state the following:

Citi Prestige® account cardmembers are eligible to receive one (1) statement credit per account, every five (5) years up to $100, for either the Global Entry or the TSA Pre Check® application fee. Cardmember must charge the application fee of at least $85 to their Citi Prestige® Card to be eligible for the statement credit. Cardmembers will receive a statement credit for the first program (either Global Entry or TSA Pre Check®) to which they apply and pay for with their eligible card, regardless of whether they are approved for Global Entry or TSA Pre Check®.

The one (1) statement credit every five (5) years for the application fee charged to the Citi Prestige® credit card account is applied by Citi directly to the card account. Please allow 1-2 billing cycles after the qualifying Global Entry or TSA Pre ? ® is charged to the eligible account for the statement credit to be posted to the account.

Even though the terms tell you to allow 1-2 billing cycles, I was credited the $100 right before the close of the statement cycle in which I made the $100 application fee charge (along with my $450 annual fee). For example, my first statement cycle closed 5/18 and here is a screenshot from my account:

prestigeglobal_full

People with kids should note that while TSA Pre-Check allows children 12 and under to go with you in line without separate membership, Global Entry requires every single person (no matter the age) to have their own separate Global Entry membership in order to use the special kiosks.

Pro Travel Tips: Never Ask If They Speak English

helloI’ve been getting back into podcasts while driving, and have been catching up on the Alton Brown podcast. In the Samantha Brown episode, she shared a good tip about international travel and language barriers that I’ve never read in a guidebook: Never go around asking people if they speak English. Even if you say the question in their home language. Because when you say:

Do you speak English?

What they often hear is:

You speak English, DON’T YOU?

This comes off as a challenge, with the suggestion that you are expected to serve them. It starts off your conversation on the wrong foot. I know, I used to do it myself. You can see their face clench in a defensive manner.

The trick is to simply attempt your question in their home language (with a smile). Even if it is just “Hello” or “Excuse me” and then gibberish. They’ll be able to tell you don’t speak their language well. Most likely, they’ll even be able to figure out you speak English (even if you don’t think you look American) by your accent. Then if they do speak English, they’ll help you. If they don’t, they’ll still try to help you. People tend to be very nice in this regard. As Samantha Brown sums it up:

It’s better to butcher their language and show that you care, rather than speak perfectly in your own language and prove that you don’t.

For more pro travel tips check out Top 20 Hacks to Travel Like a Kiva Pro and How to Travel by Anthony Bourdain.

Book Review: Wide-Eyed Wanderers by Richard and Amanda Ligato

wideeyedbookA couple of weeks ago I wrote about the non-traditional retirement story of Richard and Amanda Ligato, which was highlighted in a Nationwide Insurance commercial. Usually TV commercials are too busy convincing you to buy buy buy, so the idea that people who saved half their incomes were shown was amusing.

I ended up buying a copy of their book Wide-Eyed Wanderers: A Befuddling Journey from the Rat Race to the Roads of Latin America & Africa* which covers their journey through Mexico, South America, and Africa. For simplicity and frugality, they bought a 1978 Volkswagen camper-van and basically lived in it the entire trip, driving to all of their destinations (besides being shipped from Panama to Ecuador, and then Chile to South Africa). They cooked their own meals and slept nearly every night in the van.

The Ligato’s are one feisty couple. There are multiple stories about them being shaken down by police officers, customs officials, and other government workers for bribes and how they refused to pay any of them. (I think it helped that Amanda is a native speaker of Spanish.) In another incident, they actually tackled a woman who was trying to pickpocket them and ended up arrested in an Argentinian police station (they were eventually released). They weren’t as lucky when they reached the bottom of South American and tried to talk their way into a cheap ticket to Antarctica, as they ultimately had to give up as the price was too high.

Me being me, I wanted to learn more about the economics of how they saved, planned, and budgeted for their journey. Unfortunately, they really don’t cover this in the book. The topic is only mentioned briefly when they have to hang out with what you might call the “average American traveler”. For example, on the Inca Trail in Peru, they wrote about how a fellow hiker realized that the Ligatos had spent as much on their last 15 weeks coming through Mexico and into South America as she alone had spent on her 2-week packaged tour.

For the most part, the book consists of journal entries, each from a different town or city. The stories were nice, although as a whole I wouldn’t say the book was exceptionally funny (although there are light moments) or enthralling (although there are some exciting moments). What I’m trying to say is that they aren’t professional writers and you shouldn’t expect the humor of Bill Bryson or the romanticism of Peter Mayle. This is just a true journal of real people who had a life-changing journey that most people can only dream about.

I highlighted this quote from Rich Ligato, expressed while watching a ceremony to remember the dead in Patzcuaro, Mexico:

If I were to die now would I go without regret? Have I really lived? Unlike many of those who created these ancient traditions, I’ve been given the free will to choose my path. Have I?

If are reading this, it is likely that you have more freedom in your life than most. Books like this remind me to ask myself: Are you consciously living or just passively getting by?

* I bought a physical copy, but this title should also be included for free if you are part of the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library or Kindle Unlimited. It is self-published which is probably why I couldn’t find it at my library, but you could still check.

Rewards Dining Programs and Avoiding Airline Miles Expiration Policies

stopwatch2As I am now a father of two in diapers and no longer an active traveler, I am again faced with the possible expiration of my frequent flier miles due to inactivity.

The easiest and cheapest way for me to keep my miles alive has been to using dining rewards programs that give me miles for eating at participating restaurants. You just link your existing credit card and pay with that credit card and it figures everything out for you – no embarrassing coupons, apps, or membership cards. Not all the food joints are great (this is basically paid advertising and the best places don’t need to advertise) but thankfully there is consistently a small overlap between participating merchants and places I usually eat at anyway. My $10 lunch fills the stomach and resets the clock on my 5 or 6-figure mileage balance (although you could buy something as little as a $1 bottle of water). Miles usually post within a few weeks; often faster.

Each separately branded program can have multiple credit cards linked to it, but any single credit card can only be linked with one program. (Hope that made sense. You can’t earn miles on two airlines on the same purchase.) However, you can change the linked cards as often as you like via website.

Be on the lookout for also various limited-time promotions for both new and existing members that may offer you more free points and miles. For example, below is a limited-time promotion offering new American Airlines Dining members 2,000 miles for spending $30+ at a participating restaurant and completing a short survey. At 1 to 2 cents value each, that 2,000 mile bonus is worth $20-$40 by itself. You can join each program and grab every bonus (one by one or simultaneously, if you have enough credit card numbers).

Here are all the airline mileage and hotel programs that are affiliated with Rewards Network (formerly iDine), along with their expiration policies:

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

American Airlines AAdvantage

Delta SkyMiles

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

Spirit Airlines

United Airlines MileagePlus

US Airways Dividend Miles

Hilton HHonors

International Hotel Group (IHG)

Quick Reference: Membership Rewards vs. Starwood Points vs. Chase Ultimate Rewards

Due to birth of our first child, we haven’t been traveling much the last 24 months. However, I’ve still been racking up the miles (via credit card bonuses, credit card rewards, dining rewards, and shopping portals) and have built up a sizable pile with the three major “superpoints” programs – those that allow transfers to a variety of air and hotel partners. Everyone has their own preferred programs and unique travel needs, but here is a quick reference guide to simplify things. My favorite transfer partners are bolded, but all of the other options are also included. These days I’ll probably just be topping off an account off to qualify for an award ticket or free hotel night. Ratios are 1:1 unless otherwise noted.

Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) Points

  • United Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Hyatt
  • Korean Air
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Marriott
  • Ritz-Carlton
  • IHG Rewards Club
  • Amtrak

Credit card bonuses and rewards are the fastest way to jumpstart your miles balance. Here are related offers:

American Express Membership Rewards (MR) Points

[Read more…]

Flightfox – Complicated Flight Booking Without a Travel Agent

Passenger air travel must have one of the most complicated, opaque pricing systems known to man. The price of a ticket depends on date of travel, date of booking, time of arrival, time of departure, one-way or roundtrip, how many seats are left, the price of oil, and who knows what else. I mean, this is an industry that overbooks on purpose because they gamble on how many people will miss their flight, and will start to charge for restroom access by the second any day now.

Sites like Travelocity and Expedia have made buying your own airfare much more simple, but if you’ve every tried to make a complicated booking with an extended layover, open jaw, multiple cities, or international transfers it’s still quite a maze. In the old days you’d ask a travel agent and hope they were good, but now you can ask the crowd at Flightfox.com. Thanks to reader Mike for the tip.

Simply enter your trip details and offer a bounty ($19 minimum) for the best flight booking in your own opinion. In addition to a low price, you may prefer a certain airline, have a lot of baggage, require no stopovers, or be willing to endure extra stopovers if it saves money. Ideally you’d choose the best option, pay the bounty, and walk away with a better result than you’d have gotten otherwise. If you don’t like any of the options, you owe nothing.

If you’re already a savvy frequent flier, then you can sign up and earn money as a Flight Expert deal finder. Flightfox takes 25% of the fee and you keep 75%. According to Techcrunch, about 5-10% are indeed moonlighting travel agents, and the rest are just well-versed travelers.

I definitely plan on trying this the next time I have a multi-city trip. Anyone use it yet?

Update: About to fly? Get 25% off Flightfox with this link!

Tingo: New Hotel Booking Website That Allows Price Drops

If you haven’t heard, Autoslash was a website that let you book car rentals and then re-booked you whenever they could find a better price via price drops or discount codes. It worked well for me in the past. Then the major car rental companies (which are really 3 huge companies with 10 different names) stopped allowing them to provide quotes. Things do not look good for them.

Tingo.com is a new site that wants to do basically the same thing but with hotel rooms. You book a room, and if there are future price drops, they’ll rebook the same room at the new lower price. It appears that you have to pay for the room upfront, and then future price drops are refunded to your credit card.

I like the idea, and I don’t see why you wouldn’t try them out if they give the same upfront rate as other big sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc. (I tried a few dates and places and Tingo did offer the same prices.) It would seem you have nothing to lose? But given what happened to AutoSlash, don’t be surprised if they receive a corporate smackdown as well. I do see that Tingo is a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, so maybe they have cleared this with the major hotel chains.

AutoSlash.com Review: My Car Rental Experience

I just got back from my trip to Orlando, where I tried the new car rental website AutoSlash.com to book, and previously wrote an introductory summary of their features. To briefly recap, the website takes advantage of a unique feature of car rental reservations to continuously check for lower prices over time and re-book you whenever there is a price drop.

Here is the price history of my one week rental of a mid-size car in April 2011 from Orlando International Airport (MCO). I later realized it included Good Friday and Easter weekend, which I think increased the demand of cars.

  • Day 1 – $665.61 including all taxes and fees, with Payless. This was really the lowest price I could find at the time across Kayak, Expedia, etc.
  • Day 2 – $346.18 with Dollar Rent A Car at .
  • Day 3 – $320.41 again with Dollar.
  • Day 38 – $273.68, final price with Dollar.

As you can see, there was a flurry of activity in the beginning, nothing for a long time, and then finally one last price drop at the end. This is only a theory, but I think that the folks behind Autoslash do a price search for a week or so after your rental reservation is first made, and again a week or so before your actual rental date. Or perhaps this is just a result of how the rental agencies vary their prices over time.

Regardless, I was really happy with my experience, and will use them again in the future. They found a better price than I could have found, with really zero effort on my part. Many of these rental agencies are clones of each other anyway. I picked up my car from Dollar with no issues with my special coupon code, and drove away in a huge Ford Crown Victoria with 9 miles on the odometer since that’s all they had left. I declined all additional insurance coverages from them, and returned it with no problems. This last part is more of a testament to that specific Dollar franchise, but it increases my confidence with places that aren’t Avis or Hertz.

British Airways 100k Miles Promo – Booking Award Tickets On American Airlines Using British Airways Miles

Update 5/6/11: The 100k mile card promotion is now expired. The information on using British Airways miles should still be accurate.

First, a quick reminder that the British Airways 100,000 mile promotion mentioned previously is scheduled to expire in less than two weeks on May 6th. To recap, the Chase British Airways Visa Signature card (expired) is offering 50,000 British Airways (BA) Executive Club miles for new cardmembers with first purchase, and another 50,000 BA miles after spending $2,500 within 3 months of opening, for a total of 100,000 miles.

There are many options on how to spend these points, for example we spent them on business class tickets to London and Rome. But to show the basic value of this offer, I looked into how to use British Airways miles to book award travel on American Airlines, their partner in the US. If American Airlines has a domestic award seat available in their “MileSAAver” category, then in general you can book it with British Air miles. A flight within the continental US costs 25,000 BA miles plus $5, with no fuel surcharges. (Other combinations of less miles and more cash are available, see below.)

If your flight is a direct flight with no stopovers, you can search and book an award online at BritishAirways.com. On the site, go to “Spending BA Miles” and then “Book with partner airlines” and then “Make a reward booking”. They always try to find BA flights first, but once you search for domestic flights, you’ll see this option to include partner airlines.

Here is a screenshot of an award I found from Los Angeles to Dallas/Ft. Worth for 25,000 miles + $5:


(click to enlarge)

Note that I can see the availability even if I don’t have enough miles to actually book it yet. Alternatively, you can book an American Airlines flight from the continental US to Hawaii for 35,000 + $5. Here is an award I found from Los Angeles to Honolulu during the summer for that amount:


(click to enlarge)

Of course, it’s better if you can book ahead of time for the best availability. If your flight has a stopover, you might want to look for award availability on the American Airlines website first and then call British Airways to book the award flight. Since you can’t find the airfare online through their search system, you can try asking them to waive their phone booking fee. Thus, with the 100,000 miles from this offer (plus $20 in fees), you could by four domestic round-trip tickets in the lower 48, or nearly three round trip tickets to Hawaii.