My month in money #9 & #10: 7 weeks away

What I’ve actually done this month to be clever with my cash.

There are a couple of thoughts behind this feature. Often there are small things I’m doing that don’t warrant a whole article so this can bring them together! Plus, it’s a great way to show that I “walk the walk” and really do follow my own advice!

So here are the key money matters from my own life in September and October 2022.

Two months away

This edition of my month in money is actually two months – September and October. And that’s not because I couldn’t be bothered last month.

I’ve actually spend the last seven weeks in California! You hopefully didn’t notice (here’s why it’s not a good idea to be sharing when you’re away) as I spent time before going away writing articles and recording podcast episodes and YouTube videos to go up in my absence.

Of course, it might have already twigged that these seven weeks I’ve been away were also seven of the most dramatic weeks in UK history since I’ve been alive.

The Queen died a few days before we flew, then the Liz Truss government revealed its financial plans, which it’d be an understatement to say didn’t go well (I’ll come back to how the pound dropping off a cliff against the dollar impacted our trip).

Then they backtracked, and the key figures quit or got sacked, and now we’ve yet another PM in place (it’s probably a stretch to say Rishi Sunak is a “friend of the show”, though I did interview him for Cash Chats back in March when he was Chancellor).

So it’s safe to say I still had to do a fair bit more than planned while away! But there’s still plenty to share with you about my money over the last few months.

Planning the trip

Seven weeks away isn’t an everyday holiday. And it’s also never going to be cheap, especially somewhere like the USA. So we had to plan and save for this for a long time.

This meant a fair bit of research on what we’d do and when. Though much of that is online, I do love a decent guidebook. And rather than go straight to a bookshop, I headed to my local library to get a stack of different guides. Research done, I ordered the best one from a second-hand site (with an extra saving on top) to take with us.

With our plan in hand I was able to work out how much we needed and how much we could save (and adjust the plan as needed to fit that budget).

I had the same approach to this as I do with any savings goal. We already had some cash saved, and put away extra each month (obviously put in an easy access account, at the best rate we could get at the time). 

And saving extra here and there actually meant we could stretch the holiday by a week from our initial plan of six weeks.

Of course, much of this planning was before the living costs really started to creep up. So I kept an eye on costs for both when we were away and at home to ensure we were OK to cover higher bills and spending before leaving and once we got back.

Booking the trip

Some big savings and some general tips here. 

For the flights we took advantage of an American Express offer for £250 back on a £500 spend with United. Since we have a supplementary card we were able to get this offer twice, booking separately on each one.

We planned the whole trip before leaving, meaning I was able to book hotels and car hire in advance. More than half was prepaid, and that actually allowed me to make a massive dent on an Amex Platinum welcome offer spend requirement. 

As much as I could I made bookings that could be cancelled for free, whether a day or week in advance so we could change plans if we needed – which we did a few times. We completely altered the last week of the trip to different destination and had to change to a bigger car (with a larger boot) that somehow actually ended up cheaper.

We also decided to base ourselves in a single place for four weeks and this opened up some extra discounts. Many apartments on sites like Airbnb offer 30 day discounts – or are only available for longer term stays like that. The place we chose was 50% cheaper than similar properties when paying for a week. 

But I managed to get it for even less thanks to my Airbnb hack. Often hosts list their homes on more than one site and just copy and paste the description. So I did the same, entering part of the text into Google. 

This allowed me to book instead on a site called Vrbo (part of Expedia) and save us another 25%! You can do this for hotels too, especially any “secret deals” that won’t give you a hotel name. 

Before we went

There was some admin required before leaving. It’s no longer necessary to tell banks you’re going away, but I did take advantage of an invite from Barclaycard to switch to its Reward credit card (free free and 0.25% cashback), and get a supplementary card for Becky.

Though the aim was for us to mainly use our Chase cards (also free to use but with a better 1% cashback), there are times when abroad where you need a credit card rather than debit card. Things like car hire and some hotel incidentals often put holds on the card. Use a debit card and that’s money you can’t access until the rental or stay is over. 

It’s also always worth having backup cards just in case – and there were a few of those moments on this trip, including a Chase outage where the app was down for a day or so. Here’s more on the top cards to use overseas.

I also cancelled streaming subscriptions, though I thought I’d also done this for a Kids Pass trial I’d taken out in the summer for when my neice and nephew visited. Fortunately I was only charged for a month at £3.99 rather than a year. But it was frustrating to have let this slip as I had numerous reminders in my calendar. 

An Amazon slip 

I’ve also got a confession to make. I spent actual money at Amazon. There were a couple of discount vouchers offering me a little money off which I combined to buy some slightly discounted Apple AirTags (after the chaos of the summer at airports and Becky’s luggage going missing on a trip to Rome earlier in the year I liked the idea of being able to track our bags).

Did I need to buy them at Amazon? No. Should I have bought them elsewhere? Probably. Do I feel guilty about it? Yes, particularly as once I’d done this I slipped again and bought some toothbrush heads. 

Again I deal stacked, so the price this time was very good, but I’m annoyed I strayed from my ethical stance on avoiding Amazon after so long without. I resolve to be stronger, and as I write this I’m coming to terms with letting two free £5 off credits expire as I’d need to have spent at least £20.

The pound crash against the dollar

As our trip approached, the pound began slipping bit by bit against the dollar. From around $1.30 to £1 when we began planning, it had fallen to $1.14. That meant for every £100 we’d spend at that rate we’d have $16 less. When you’re talking about a seven week trip that’s huge.

And as I’m sure you know, it got worse. At one point our spending was almost at parity as the pound hit a historic low rate of $1.04.

Fortunately, I’d partly (though unintentionally) hedged this by booking most of our accommodation earlier when rates were better.

And I’m also in a relatively unusual position that some of my earnings are in dollars. As I get paid this at the start of the month I wasn’t able to exchange these at the very lowest rates (things recovered a little at the end of September). But I did convert a decent chunk at something that was comparable to what we were paying.

Without this though it would have been a real hit to our budget. And I think we’d likely have had to rethink huge parts of what we did, potentially even heading home early.

Three change the terms of my deal

Another potential mini crisis came from Three. Two weeks into my trip the mobile network notified me that they’d be ending my current SIM deal in 30 days – a week before I was due to fly home.

This was a problem as the big reason I was with Three was the Go Roam feature for inclusive data etc around the world, including in the USA.

Though this benefit ended a year ago for new customers but continued if existing ones didn’t renew a contract.

Under the enforced new terms, I’d have to pay £5 a day to use my phone. That would add up to £40, along with pushing my monthly SIM-only tariff from £8 to £19.

I called Three to see if there was anything they could do. Effectively it was “computer says no”.

If I’d been at home when I got the message I could have switched and ditched to a different network (O2 customers who also have Virgin Media can get USA roaming for free). But being in California meant I was stuck.

Fortunately since Becky has Volt via O2 we managed to get by in the last week with me only using my data once (hopefully – the bill hasn’t come through yet). 

Now I’m back top of my to-do list is to move away to a cheaper deal. I’ve already requested my PAC

Amex Platinum benefits disappoint

If you’ve read my review of the American Express Platinum credit card, you’ll know I was already dubious of some of the benefits that others use to justify the huge annual fee. 

When it came to our free access to airport lounges, there were mixed results. We managed to get in to one at Heathrow, though at a different terminal we’d likely have been turned away. While on our return from San Francisco, all participating lounges were closed – even though it was only 6pm.

Another perk I wanted to use was the $150 free credit to use at an overseas restaurant. Despite covering quite a lot of ground, there were only a handful of California restaurants taking part. The three in LA weren’t convenient, while the one in San Francisco was removed before we’d even left the UK.

There’s also the travel insurance – and that also was a disappointment. Some of the cover only applies if you booked with the Platinum card, which meant I still needed to buy a policy for my flights (booked via the Amex Platinum Cashback card, as mentioned above).

And the rest…

I can’t remember everything but a few extras in brief…

  • I was rejected for a TSB current account – I’ll cover this in more detail in my next current account update
  • I sold my last remaining Premium Bonds and moved the money to better paying accounts
  • In California, glasses of wine start at $13, while a pint of beer at $7 (and classes are 20% smaller!). And that’s before tax and tip. Happy hour offers were fortunately pretty common
  • There aren’t the theme park offers like we get in the UK. Disney Land was great, though paying extra to skip queues was essential. Plus it was cheaper to buy a season pass for a Californian theme park Magic Mountain than a single ticket and separate parking
  • I took advantage of a “welcome back” email to pay just 75p a month for Telegraph Extra subscription, which will get me a free Vue ticket and Chilli rental each month for four months

Andy’s podcast

Listen to Cash Chats, Andy’s twice-weekly podcast. Episodes every Tuesday and Friday.

2 thoughts on “My month in money #9 & #10: 7 weeks away

  1. Great article! As someone who is also not long back from the US I feel your pain regarding the price of beer. In one place they were 17 dollars each! I also took advantage of the United Amex offer which was fantastic value and then credited the points to Aer Lingus and then transferred them to Avios. £70 in Avios for just a £350 flight is really not bad at all!

    1. Yeah, some of the really strong ones were in very small glasses so they’d have been even more money!

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