Taking a long vacation does not necessarily mean burning a hole in your pocket.
I have been trying to stay safe for the past two years, but eventually I caught the bug - no, not Covid-19, but the travel bug. So last month I went on a two-week vacation to the United States with my boyfriend.
Not having travelled for so long, we were in the mood to splurge a little more and did not set a holiday budget. But we wanted to spend smartly and conscientiously, logging our expenditures as we went.
Intensive research was done to find the best deals. Our itinerary was simple: We flew from Washington to California and visited Seattle, Fresno and Los Angeles. Transport was a rental car, and thankfully, as the trip was made just before the Ukraine war, petrol prices had not spiked yet.
The pricier items included a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers at the Crypto.com arena (my boyfriend is a huge basketball fan) in LA and shopping at the numerous factory outlets. But some of our activities were also entirely free, such as outdoor hiking.
Covid-19 also inadvertently added to our expenses - we had to do two pre-departure tests, one in Singapore and another in the United States, and another on arrival back at Changi.
Taking yourself on a long vacation does not necessarily mean burning a hole in your pocket. Neither does it translate to stinging on every cent. Here are some tips for you to get the most bang for your buck.
TAKE CASH AND CARD
We stocked up on some cash at the good old money changers in Chinatown and realised that they still offer some of the most competitive exchange rates.
But being a typical Gen Z-er, I wasn't keen on carrying huge sums of cash as it's cumbersome and can be stolen or lost.
If you lose your card, you can get it blocked and replaced. If fraudulent transactions are made on it, you are protected too and your liability is capped at $100. This is on condition that you did not act fraudulently or with negligence or had not failed to report the lost card in a timely manner.
Many places also accept cashless payments. But the exchange rates for credit cards can be quite disappointing and a foreign currency transaction fee is often charged as a percentage of the transaction amount.
That prompted us to hunt around for a good bargain.
GET A CARD WITH NO TRANSACTION FEES, AND A COMPETITIVE EXCHANGE RATE
We stumbled on Instarem's Amaze card, and were quite impressed with what it had to offer. However, the physical card didn't arrive in time for our trip and we were unable to connect the virtual card to Apple Pay. So we settled for multi-currency travel wallet YouTrip as well as British-based fintech firm Revolut's services.
The Amaze card is like a virtual private network for your credit cards and you can link up to five Mastercard-issued credit or debit cards. It is also regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
Mr Aaron Wong, founder of travel website MileLion, told me: "Unlike YouTrip or Revolut, which use prepaid wallets, Amaze pairs with a card. When you spend on Amaze, your underlying card is billed. This allows you to double dip on rewards: You earn rewards from Amaze (1 per cent cashback on overseas spend), as well as your underlying credit card (up to four miles per dollar, if you pair with the Citi Rewards or DBS Woman's World Card)."
We compared the exchange rates of YouTrip and Revolut and found them to be pretty competitive. However, they did not earn us any additional rewards when we topped up. We also noticed that Revolut charged a small fee for weekend currency transactions.
Amaze does not require any top-ups, so your spending is not interrupted. It has no foreign currency transaction fees and allows users to transact in any currency. You can use the card anywhere that Mastercard is accepted, in the currencies that it supports.
The Amaze website also states that the maximum amount that can be spent on one receipt is $50,000 or the foreign exchange equivalent. It is also subject to the linked card's respective card issuer limit.
However, Amaze's cashback is not without strings attached. For a start, cashback is earned only on a quarterly basis. And some of these amazing cashback deals have been slashed this month. Cashback applies only to transactions that have a minimum spend of $10 (up from $5), and you need to accumulate at least $1,500 in transactions for that given quarter (up from $500).
The maximum cashback that can be earned per quarter has fallen from $100 to $50.
"As long as the banks are willing to offer rewards on Amaze transactions, any cashback earned from Amaze itself is simply the icing on top," Mr Wong says.
However, he also notes that navigating a fraudulent transaction on Amaze is an administrative slog compared with local banks. Instarem does not have a call centre and a support ticket and dispute form will need to be filled out.
"You will need to navigate an administrative process to raise a dispute, reverse the transaction, block the old card and receive a new card. With banks, all this is handled through one phone call. With Amaze, it's significantly slower and much more complicated," Mr Wong says.
Some good cards are also up for grabs if you prefer local banks. For instance, DBS Visa debit card lets you skip the foreign currency fees and conversion charges. Simply link the Visa debit card to your DBS multi-currency account and you can change up to 11 foreign currencies, with no charges incurred.
You can also apply for the OCBC 90°N Visa card. This lets you to receive the equivalent of up to five air miles per $1 spend for the first $10,000 in foreign currency spend, if you apply for the card before May 31. These rewards never expire and there are no conversion fees when using these rewards.
But whichever card you end up using, one thing you must definitely avoid is dynamic currency conversion (DCC) fees. The idea behind DCC is fairly straightforward - when you make a purchase abroad, you can be charged in either your local currency or home currency. If you opt to pay in Singapore dollars, the merchant converts the purchase from the local currency on your behalf. However, this pretty much means terrible exchange rates and a mark-up as some of these fees will go to the merchant.
"Always be on your guard and insist on paying in the local currency. One way of avoiding DCC is to only use Amex cards, since the Amex platform does not support DCC," Mr Wong adds.
BUY TRAVEL INSURANCE
Travelling during a pandemic can potentially throw up numerous curve balls, such as the very real possibility of getting infected with Covid-19 while on vacation.
To give ourselves peace of mind, we added Covid-19 coverage for our insurance policy. But ensure that small common inconveniences such as flight delays as well as more serious medical emergencies are covered.
If you are planning to engage in riskier activities like bungee jumping or even skiing, be sure that your policy covers these too.
HAVE A HOLIDAY BUDGET AND TRACK EXPENSES
Professor Sharon Ng, head of the marketing division at Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School, stresses the importance of having a holiday budget: "When people travel, there is an emotional need to purchase, even if it something which is not needed.
"People can have virtual wallets to preload their money so that they can keep tabs on how much has been spent."
There are also many free apps to help you categorise your expenses.
Statistics have shown that more Singaporeans are indeed returning to travel. Mr Vincent Tan, head of cards business at OCBC Bank, said: "In March, we've seen spend on flights jump by 80 per cent compared to February, and travel agency bookings up 70 per cent."
Our two weeks flew by and the trip was smooth and fuss-free. Despite the absence of safe management measures abroad, where masks were not mandated in most settings, and even though we indulged in the surreal experience of watching a basketball game in a packed stadium of almost 20,000 people who were cheering and eating, we returned home Covid-19 free.
Guess it's time to think of the next escape.
Source: The Sunday Times