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Getting through airport security with CLEAR – My experience

Posted on 11 December 2012 by David

Airport security with CLEAR, what is it?

I received an email the other day that had a headline “CLEAR is now at Westchester airport!”. Having seen a CLEAR entry point at security while flying out of SFO (San Francisco) earlier this year, the email peaked my interest as I was going be flying out of HPN very frequently in the near future.

If you’ve never heard of CLEAR before, the idea is simple.  It is a commercial endeavor aimed at allowing you to bypass the long ID and boarding pass lines at the security checkpoints in airport terminals.   They give you the means to shoot past the long lines and go straight into the screening area.

Great in theory but good in practice?

CLEAR doesn’t operate at a lot of airports so the benefit is, I think, better for business travelers who fly out of the same airport frequently. Since I happen to be flying out of HPN (Westchester airport) often, I decided to give them a try.

Note that there is a process you have to go through before you can use CLEAR at the airport.  You need to physically go to one of their offices and have your documentation verified and you need to have your fingerprints and retinas scanned. It doesn’t take long to do and you’re in and out of the office in less than 15 minutes. Once that’s done, you get your CLEAR smart card in the mail within a week or two.

On my first day using CLEAR at HPN I happened to get there super early (5:30am in fact!).  HPN is a small airport so there’s not that many people there at that time.  There was no line at the TSA ID check so I could have just sped right through that without using CLEAR but since I was eager to try out my CLEAR pass, I went to the CLEAR area instead.

At HPN there are two large kiosks and two friendly CLEAR agents  there who help you get through.  I handed over my CLEAR photo ID smart badge over to one of the agents.  She inserted it into the kiosk and I did a fingerprint scan. It instantly recognized me and the agent signaled the ok to her partner to unlock a special shortcut door into the screening area.

All in all it took about 30 seconds to get through.  It was a breeze.

OK, but did it save time?

Honestly speaking, since there was no line that morning at the TSA ID check, I would have been in the screening area a few moments before I would have walked through the CLEAR shortcut so no real-time savings for me that morning.  However, I’ve been at HPN when the ID badge check wraps around itself a few times so I can see it saving a good 10-15 minutes of waiting when the line is long.

How much is it?

It’s $179 a year for an individual and less for family and corporate accounts.  At that price you need to consider whether it’s something you’ll use frequently.

How does this compare to TSA Pre Check?

I don’t have any experience with TSA Pre Check but from what I have read, the premise is similar.   TSA Pre Check aims at saving you time in the screening area.   One nice thing about TSA Pre Check is that if you already have Global Entry, you can participate in TSA pre-check right off the bat.  You can find more info on TSA pre-check at TSA’s pre-check website.

Where can you use CLEAR?

Unfortunately not at that many places.  Here’s the list as of December 2012.  The latest list can be found on the CLEAR website.

  • Orlando International Airport (MCO)
  • Denver International Airport (DEN)
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
  • Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)
  • Westchester NY Airport (HPN)

Is CLEAR worth having?

For me, it’s too early to say.  $179 is a sizable investment.  It’s along the same lines as asking if paying $400 a year for  lounge access is worth it. If you fly out once a week out of any of the airports with CLEAR and you are constantly short on time, you probably should consider it.

I’ve seen CLEAR at SFO (San Francisco airport) as well and I recall there being a zero line at CLEAR.  At the time I had no clue what it was about, I thought it was for airport personnel.  Now I know better and it would have saved me the 15 minutes it took to get through the TSA ID check line if I had a CLEAR membership then!

Now that I have it, I have to try it out a few more times to find out if it’s worth it for me.  I tend to fly really early in the morning when the lines are short so it may not benefit me as much but like I said, lines do get long at HPN later in the day so if I were to fly more often in the later morning or afternoons, then it might be worth it to save the annoyance of waiting in line.

So it depends on your situation.  If you tend to fly often when the airport is busy it might be worth it.

Have you tried out CLEAR?  Is it the best thing since sliced bread for you?  I’m curious to see what you think.

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Comparison of Smart Chip Credit Cards in U.S. – Chip & Pin

Posted on 26 June 2012 by David

Smart Chip Credit Card - Blue

Today is a quick one. There are only TWO chip-and-pin smart chip credit cards available in the USA.

If you are interested in the chip-and-signature smart cards, we have a detailed comparison table created to help you decide.

For a comprehensive list of all the smart chip credit cards available in the U.S., you should refer to the post here.

Not sure if you even need a smart card?  Then you must read this post.

Chip-and-pin Cards Compared

Below are all the chip-and-pin cards at a glance.

Card Name Issuing Bank Annual Fee Foreign Exchange Fees Rewards Sign Up Promotion
GlobeTrek Visa® Rewards Card Andrews Federal Credit Union None! 1% Visa Platinum Rewards

  • 1 point per $1 everywhere else
5,000 points after first purchase
The Elite Credit Card UNFCU $50 None Rewards

  • 2 points per $1 at supermarkets and dining
  • 1 point per $1 everywhere else
LOUNGE CLUB™ cards allow access to over 350 VIP lounges worldwide

** Please refer to comments box below on how to apply for the GlobeTrek VISA Rewards Card.  We will write a post shortly with detailed instructions.  In the meantime, if you have questions or run into any issues, feel free to drop us a note!

Smart Chip Credit Cards from trips around the world - using credit cards

 

How to Decide Which Chip-and-Pin Card to Apply

 

The best smart chip credit card for you depends on your lifestyle and spending habit.

Why?

This is because everyone places a different value on the various benefits offered by a credit card.

For us, first and foremost, saving money is key.  So, anytime we can save cash or get more rewards to subsidize our travel, we like that smart chip credit card a little bit more.

Let’s look at the easy stuff first.

On Sign Up Promotion, the GlobeTrek Visa Card wins because we will get 5000 points after 1st purchase.  Staying in lounges at the airport is a luxury that we will trade 5000 points for.

On Rewards, we think the Elite Credit Card wins, although not by much.  This is because while the rewards program of the Elite Credit Card is slightly richer, we have another card we use for grocery and dining spend, so we will not likely take advantage of the 2 points per $1 at supermarket offer.  It will be a nice backup card though in case we forget the other card.

Now, the tricky part is how to evaluate annual fee and foreign exchange fee.  It depends on how much you plan to spend overseas.

Essentially, you are trying to compare $50 vs. 1% of foreign spend.

If you think you will put more than $5000 on your new credit card from overseas, then apply for the Elite Credit Card because you will spend more on the foreign exchange fee with the GlobeTrek Card than the annual fee on the Elite Credit Card.

On the other hand, if you think you will spend less than $5000 overseas, then by all means, apply for the GlobeTrek Visa Card because the 1% you spend on foreign exchange fees on that card will be less than the annual fee on the Elite Credit Card.

**Caveat Emptor? We noticed one inconvenience on the Elite Credit Card in that it will automatically enroll you in a 60-day complimentary term life insurance product and the cost of this product will be automatically billed to your Elite Credit Card starting on the 61st day.  If you don’t need term life insurance you can opt-out before the 61st day, but you must call a designated number on the fine print of the application to cancel.  We think this is a very questionable practice to automatically opt-in everyone to this (eventually) paid product.  So all else being equal, we will sign up for the GlobeTrek Visa Card instead.

Everyone has different spending habits, so think about how you spend, then decide on the card you want to apply.

 

Which smart chip credit card are you planning to apply for?  Any questions, drop us a comment below!

 

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photo by: 4nitsirk

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Comparison of Smart Chip Credit Cards in U.S. – Chip & Signature

Posted on 24 June 2012 by David

Smart Chip Credit Card - Gold

Smart chip credit cards are becoming more important to carry on your trip abroad, as more merchants overseas discontinue their support for the magnetic strip credit cards predominately available in the U.S.

We have researched the list of smart chip credit cards you can apply for in the U.S. previously.  Today, we would like to provide a quick comparison of chip and signature smart cards available in the country.  Tomorrow I’ll compare the available chip and pin cards.

Key Considerations in Deciding the Right Card for You

The table below shows all the chip and signature cards available in the U.S. today.

None of the cards carry any foreign exchange fees (which is great news!) and all cards offer a rewards program.  All cards, with the exception of the J.P. Morgan Select Visa Signature Card, give you a sign-on bonus as well.

If you just want to get a smart chip credit card for travel (or bragging right for being ahead of the curve), get a card with no annual fee.  At this time, only the FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa and J.P. Morgan Select Visa Signature offer no fee for the first year.  All cards have an annual fee after the first year.

However, after the first year, you can always cancel the card (just make sure you use up any rewards points in your account before you cancel), or call the bank and see if it will extend the no-fee promotion for you for another year (many banks will do that especially if you have been a good customer to them).

Which Chip and Signature Card We Would Pick and Why

Looking at the some of the benefits and features of each card, it appears that US Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa may be a decent card.  It has the lowest annual fee of all the cards, and no fee for the 1st year. That’s something to keep in mind especially if you plan to keep the card longer than a year.  As far as rewards are concerned, this card is currently offering bonus points.  The points will get you $50 for every 5,000 points which is equal to 1% cash back.  it also has a sign up promotion.

If it were up to us, our first choice would be the  US Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa by US Bank and our second choice would be the JP Morgan Select Visa Signature.  Both have no fees for the first year.  But by all means, take a look at the table below and pick the one that fits your spending style the most!

Chip-and-signature smart cards

Below are all the chip-and-signature cards compared side by side.

Card Name Issuing Bank Annual Fee Foreign Exchange Fees Rewards Sign Up Promotion
FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa USBank $0 first year, $49 thereafter None FlexPerks rewards

  • 2 points per $1 spent on gas, grocery or airline purchases, whichever you spend most on each monthly billing cycle, and on most cell phone expenses
  • 1 point per $1 everywhere else
15,000 bonus FlexPoints after the first $500 in net purchases in the first 90 days.
J.P. Morgan Select Visa Signature Chase $0 first year, $95 thereafter None Chase Ultimate Rewards

  • 2 points per $1 on air, hotel, and auto rentals
  • 1 point per $1 everywhere else
None
J.P. Morgan Palladium Chase $595
(this is not a typo)
None Chase Ultimate Rewards

  • 2 points for every $1 spent on travel
  • 1 point per $1 everywhere else
35k points for spending $100,000 a year
British Airways Visa Signature® Card Chase $95 None British Airways Avios points

  • 2.5 Avios per $1 on British Airways
  • 1.25 Avios per $1 everywhere else
50,000 Avios Bonus after first use
The Hyatt Credit Card Chase $75 None Hyatt Gold Passport

  • 3 points per $1 at Hyatt
  • 1 point per $1 everywhere else
2 free nights at any Hyatt, worldwide, the first time you use the card.

 

Which smart chip credit card did you apply for?  Any questions, drop us a comment below!

 

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Plan a Perfect African Safari in Kenya: 6 – Kicheche Camp Review

Posted on 05 June 2012 by David

Kicheche Camp Sign

Today, we are on the sixth part of our seven-part “Plan a Perfect African Safari in Kenya” series.

On our international around the world trip we decided to pay a visit to Kenya and  experience a wildlife safari.  Having already researched a location and time of the year to visit [see our post on Plan a Perfect African Safari in Kenya: 5 – When & Where] we now had to find a camp with comfortable accommodations and excellent guides.

One of the biggest mistakes we read that a safari adventurer could make is to go cheap.  A safari is one of those experiences where you get what you pay for and going cheap can result in low quality meals, poor accommodations, or even compromises in safety.

After much research we settled on Kicheche Mara Camp in the Mara North Conservancy.  Here’s our experience.

Check-In:

The most amazing thing about the Kicheche Mara Camp is its unbeatable location in the middle of the Conservancy.  The drive from the airport to the camp was a safari in itself.  We saw many animals in close proximity on our journey to the camp.

The moment we arrived in the camp we were met by one of the camp managers.  On the day we arrived the manager on duty, Olivia, greeted us.  She was warm and friendly.  While our luggage was taken to our tent, we sat down with her outside the main tent and checked in.

 

Kicheche Safety equipment

We received on check-in: camp regulations, a solar rechargeable flashlight, a walkie-talkie, and an emergency whistle.  Olivia also walked us through the safety procedures, daily activities and meal options.  The check-in was thorough, and we immediately felt we were in experienced hands.

 

Accommodation: 

Kicheche queen size bed

The tents were luxurious.  More comfortable than some hotel rooms we’ve stayed in.  The restroom was large and had running water!

 

Kicheche tents

The tents were large and placed far enough apart to give everyone their own private area.

Now look closely at the tent on the right.  See the bucket there?  If there was one drawback about the accommodations it was the ONE bucket of water you had for taking a shower.  Yep, every morning someone would come and fill up that bucket with warm water.    It’s tough at first but you eventually come to know that you really don’t need much water to take a shower!  And besides, we were literally in the nature together with the animals (one morning we woke up to a herd of zebras right outside our tent!), so having to take a bucket bath was well worth it.  We would rather be closer to the animals than to be spoiled in a hotel.  Another tip is if you tell the camp staff that you want another bucket of water in advance, they will gladly bring you another bucket (we used that a few times :)

Kicheche common tent

In the main tent, you could charge all your electricity hungry devices.

 

Meals: 

Fantastic dining at Kicheche

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were included in the rate.   Dinner was served in a group setting where everyone would come together to eat and share stories of the day.   The food was amazingly well prepared and truly luxurious.  We were all friends at dinner and it was always one of the highlights of our day!  Everyone would laugh and trade their safari stories at the dinner table.  Oh, and of course the fact that wine and liquor flowed freely didn’t hurt either!

For breakfast, fruit, coffee, orange juice, eggs, toasted bread, cereal, all available for breakfast in a comfortable setting.

 

Activities:

Your primary reason for going on a safari is to well, go on a safari.  Kicheche offers both private and group game drives.  Depending on how busy the camp is group drives can become a private drive if you’re lucky!  We went on a game drive every day and we only had to share our vehicle once.

Kicheche 4x4

This is one of the Kicheche camp vehicles.  They have an open top and sides that can be covered if it gets too hot or if it rains.  This is the type of vehicle you need for a safari.

 

Kicheche 4x4 and a few lions

The open layout allows you to easily move around and see the action no matter in which direction it happens.

 

Jimmy the safari guide

Here is our guide “Jimmy”.  The guides all have easy English names since they’re easier to remember.   Jimmy took us to several fabulous spots for taking some photos like this one!

Maasai Mara at Sunset with Elephants on the horizon.

Jimmy took us to the perfect place at the right time for us to take this photo!

He also had the eyes of an eagle and he could spot animals at a far off distance faster than I could with my zoom lens.   Like many of the people we met in Kenya we had no trouble communicating with them in English.

Cost:

You must know that Kicheche Mara is not a budget camp.   At this price point you get a fantastic, luxurious, relaxing and comfortable experience out in the wilderness.  A safari is about being out with the animals and watching how they live in the wild.  It is not the time to go roughing it.  Your camp should be the place where you rest after a long day out in the sun and gives you the energy to do it again the next day.

We have to note that on a few occasions on our game drive, we saw other tourists packed into a small enclosed van  and we felt bad for them.  We could only assume they also had an inexperienced driver (especially THAT one who scared off the wildebeest crossing by cutting them off at the river bank!)

A tent of our size cost about $500 a night.  However the rate included full board, bush walks, group game drives, drinks including wine and spirits, and laundry (yes laundry!).   Once you include all that $500 is a decent rate.

Conclusion:

We think we made an excellent choice with the Kicheche Maasai Mara Conservancy camp.  It was relaxing, staff was attentive and friendly, the guides were fantastic, and we enjoyed meeting other safari goers.    We definitely recommend this camp and would go back again!

If you stay at Kicheche Mara let us know what your experience was like!

Tomorrow is the last part of our Kenya series, and we’ll fill you in on “Getting to Maasai Mara”!

 

You may also enjoy our Picture of the Week:

  1. Maasai Warriors Jumping Contest (Adumu)

 

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Let’s have some Dim Sum in Hong Kong! – Part 2 of 2

Posted on 06 January 2012 by Danica

In part 1 of  “Let’s have some Dim Sum in Hong Kong!”, I discussed a few common and tasty dim sum dishes to try out.   Now that you know what to order let’s talk about when it’s served and how to order.

3) When

Dim sum is traditionally a breakfast food.  However, most restaurants now offer it until ~4pm. Dim sum price is also dependent on the time you arrive/leave the restaurant.

The dim sum hours and price varies by restaurant, but in general, there are three sessions:

a) Morning (opening time until noon):  If you want the lowest cost dim sum, this is the best time to go.   But don’t overstay your welcome since you often must pay and leave the restaurant by noon to be eligible for the lower prices.  If you leave after noon, you must pay the lunch time price.

b) Lunch (noon until ~2pm):  This is when almost everyone goes to have dim sum.  Not surprisingly this is when dim sum prices are at their highest.

c) Afternoon Tea (~2pm until ~4pm):  Prices are either the same as the morning or somewhere between the morning and lunch prices. You must enter after 2pm.

While we are on the topic of prices, all dim sum dishes are categorized into 5 different levels: S, M, L, XL, XXL.  On the dim sum ordering sheet or the restaurant menu, the specific price for each category is listed.  Then, next to each dish, either the specific price of the dish or the category that the dish belongs to is listed. Note that while the dishes are categorized into different “sizes” such as S, M or L as mentioned above, the category does not necessarily represent the size of the dish, but rather the perceived value of the ingredients inside the dish.  For example, anything with seafood such as the shrimp dumpling is likely to be L and above, no matter how small is the actual dish.

4) How

When you arrive at the restaurant, the hostess will either a) ask you how many people is in your party and lead you directly to your table, or b) give you a number so you can wait in queue until a table is available.  It is customary for Chinese to share table during breakfast and lunch at a restaurant (dim sum or not).  So don’t be surprised if you get seated at a partially occupied table.

If you want a table to yourself, ask the hostess when you arrive, but the restaurant may choose not to accommodate your request.   You will have to wait much longer for a private table than a shared table.

Once you are led to your table, you will be asked what type of tea you want.  There are many types of Chinese tea to choose from.  If you are not sure, just say green tea or black tea etc. My favorite tea is Jasmine tea, shown here:

csc_2043

 

The waitress will bring you back two pots: one with tea and the other is just hot water.  In some restaurants, an extra empty bowl is also provided.

The tea pot has… well, tea.  The hot water however serves 2 purposes: 1) It provides hot water for the tea in case you need more water; 2) Some Chinese also like to rinse all the utensils, bowls and plates themselves, so you can use the water to rinse in the extra empty bowl provided for you.  I don’t usually do step #2, but it really depends on you and how comfortable you are with the sanitary environment of the restaurant you go to.  When you run out of water for your tea, just tell the waitress and she will refill the water for you.

By the way, a small charge for tea per person (not per serving) will be added to your bill.  Can you decline the tea, you ask?  I suppose you can, but no local ever declines tea.  So I don’t really know what the reaction will be…Try at your own risk ;)

At this time, you should see some dim sum ordering sheets on the table.  In traditional restaurants, servers push food carts with different dim sum dishes around the restaurant.  When they pass by your table, you can just point at what you want.  Many restaurants in the U.S. that sell dim sum still use this system.  However, in Hong Kong, almost all restaurants have transitioned to the made-to-order system.  You need to locate these dim sum ordering sheets on the table, check off the dishes you want, and hand them over to the waitress.  In Hong Kong, mark the items you want with a check-mark, NOT a cross (‘X’) like we do in the U.S., otherwise you will confuse the waitress.  We briefly forgot to do this and ended up with a confused waitress.    dsc_2039

 

After you have done this step, relax and your food should arrive shortly.  If you want more, just mark them on the ordering sheet again and repeat the process.

dsc_2044

 

When you are ready to pay the bill, just tell the waitress and you should be all set.

We hope you find this two-part dim sum series helpful for your travel.  Dim sum is integral to the Hong Kong culture.  If you have never had dim sum when you come to Hong Kong, it is like going to Italy without trying pizza, Morocco without the tangines, and Spain without the tapas.

So go on out and try some dim sum!  And while you are in Hong Kong, don’t forget to watch the Symphony of Lights performance by the Victoria Harbor!  What’s your favorite dim sum dish?  We would love to hear from you!

 

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