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Posts tagged Travel

Hotwire review

Here is the skinny on Avoid hotwire. Beware of hotwire. Hotwire sucks.

For the longer version, read on.

Next month I’m taking a little trip to Seattle with four unrelated people. My job was to book the hotel. Somehow I ended up on They had an unnamed hotel in the location I needed for a good price*. Before booking I read all the rules, restrictions, terms of use, etc. on their site. One said, “room type will be determined by the hotel based on the number of guests provided at time of booking.” This worried me a bit as there are no couples in my group of five. Therefore, I needed at least five beds. So I called hotwire before booking and asked them if booking three rooms for five people meant three beds or five (or six) beds. I was assured that I would get at least as many beds as people. I was told to call the hotel after booking to confirm this.

So I booked the non-refundable rooms and called the hotel. The hotel told me that I was booked for three rooms with only one, double bed in each room. I explained my situation and asked if they had rooms available with two beds in each room. “Yes,” they replied, “we have plenty of those rooms open on the night you are staying here, but hotwire won’t let us give you those rooms.” “You will have to call hotwire and have them change you to the rooms with two beds.” I explained that hotwire told me to call them. “Sorry,” the hotel says, “hotwire will have to make the change. We can’t on our end.”

I contacted hotwire again. This time they said if I want two beds in two of the rooms I have to pay extra. We went back and forth in a dozen email messages and they wouldn’t budge. Each time a different representative regurgitated the same lines over and over again. “You should have read our terms of use.” I did. And I called you before booking just to be sure. “No refunds.” I know. That is why I called you first to make sure I wouldn’t need a refund.

Anyway, moral of the story. Don’t book with hotwire. Not only will you be stuck with something you may not have bargained for, they don’t follow through on any assertions or promises they make prior to booking. Once they have you in the non-refundable category, they have no incentive to please the customer or make you happy.

*To top it off, the hotel they booked me with has lower rates on their website than the rate I paid with hotwire. Lesson learned.

Changing yen into dollars

I’ve mentioned before the best ways to convert dollars into yen, but what if you need to go the other way? If you only have a few hundred dollars worth of yen, you may as well change them in Japan at the airport on your way out. The cost will be about 3%.

However, if you have more than about $1,000 worth of yen to convert, or if you need to send your yen overseas and have it magically turn into dollars on the other side, there are a number of options, each with different costs.

1. You can wire the money. You will need to set up a bank account in Japan. The cost will likely be 4,000 yen or 5,000 yen per transaction plus about 1%. Your bank outside of Japan may also charge a fee. There are few situations where this is the easiest or cheapest way to go.
2. You can convert all of your yen at the airport or a bank. While this is easy to do, at about 3%, it isn’t cheap. Nor is it very safe to carry thousands of dollars into the U.S. or many other countries.
3. You can go to a post office in Japan and get the equivalent of an International Postal Money Order. In Japan it is called “International Payment Application and Declaration Form” (国際送金請求書兼告知書). The Japanese postal employees probably won’t speak English so you’ll want to print this out and show them what you want. Fill out the form. The charge is 2,000 yen plus about 1% on the exchange rate, not cheap but better than the other alternatives if you are converting more than 100,000 yen. Also, it is much safer than converting and carrying cash. You can safely mail the money to someone else in another country and in another currency as well with this method.

Super Cheap Phuket

After Phuket’s Big Buddha, our next stop on the way to the airport was a store called SuperCheap. It was a huge mistake to go here in the middle of the day as there is no air conditioning. The place felt like it was over 90 degrees and humid, not exactly a pleasurable shopping experience.

The inside was sort of like a Costco in the states…

…only it was much bigger…

…and the selection was different…

…and included a carcass of something which you could order a piece of if you like.

We didn’t actually buy a thing. Instead, we looked and looked. When we could stand the heat no longer we went to a nearby restaurant for smoothies and shakes to wait for our cab driver to come back.

Given the hustling and outright scams in Thailand, we couldn’t fully enjoy this day with our cab driver. Not only did he try to drive us to a bunch of places we didn’t want to go (so that he could get a commission if we purchased anything at these places), but he had all our luggage in the trunk of his car. Until we made it to the airport my heart couldn’t rest easy.

We did eventually make it to the airport, with luggage too, so we did finally relax. The sunset out the plane’s window was fantastic.

We pulled into Tokyo the next morning to a glorious sunrise. Even though we had some great times in Thailand, and Tokyo is far too cold at the end of December compared to Thailand, I was happy to be “home” in Tokyo. I like living somewhere with a decent infrastructure, where you aren’t asked every two seconds to buy something, and where you don’t have to worry about your safety and security as you walk the streets. The streets of Shinjuku, when we returned on December 29, were very peaceful compared to what we experienced the prior nine days. Actually, they were peaceful compared to most places in the world as most businesses were closed (for the New Year holiday which lasts about a week to 10 days beginning the 29th), many people had left town, and those Tokyoites that were still around stayed warm by staying inside.

Cambodia and Hiroshima

Terrace of the Elephants cambodia

My kids recently got back from week-long field trips to Cambodia and Hiroshima/Miyajima through Tokyo International School. I can’t really comment since I wasn’t there, but you can check out some of the photos that they took on their blog here.

My son tells me that the above picture is of the “Terrace of Elephants” in Angkor Thom. If you click on the photo to make it larger you can see that the rocks in the wall are somehow shaped to look like elephants.

Travel Essentials Photo Contest Winners

photo contest winner travel essentials

As previously mentioned I, once again, entered the Travel Essentials Photo Contest. In 2008 I came in 18th place. For 2009 I moved up to 7th place–still out of the money but an improvement nonetheless. To see the top 22 entries click here.

Changing dollars into yen – update

Air Flight-GenericbuttonAs mentioned in a prior entry, my results from two years ago are now somewhat out of date when it comes to the best method to maximize the amount of yen you receive when converting your US$ (and possibly other currencies as well) into Japanese yen.

Here are my results for August of 2009 followed by a brief analysis:

ATM 48,000 yen received / ($503.83 + $5 Wells Fargo fee) = 94.334 on 8.14.09 when market rate was 95.27
SFO 83.12 on 8.13.09 PST
NRT Cash rate of 92.12 on 8.14.09
NRT TC rate of 94.12 on 8.14.09
Post Office TC 46,730/500 = 93.46 on 8.17.09 when market rate was 94.46

I asked at the post office in Japan what their rate was on international postal money orders, and the answer was the same rate as that given for traveler’s checks. My bank (Wells Fargo) won’t let me pull out more than $510 a day.

1. Do not change US$ into Japanese yen in the USA. You will have far fewer yen to spend on your trip. The rate can be more than 10% worse than the rates offered in Japan. I checked this rate at more than one place in the SFO airport. I think Forex is the company ripping people off in the US airports. As an example, had I converted $10,000 in the US instead of in Japan I would have had the equivalent of US $1,000+ less to spend in Japan!
2. Cash is not good to exchange. Not only do you receive an inferior rate, if you lose it there is no way to get it back.
3. If you can get free traveler’s checks from your bank this is a good option. TCs give you a better exchange rate, and if they are lost or stolen you can get them replaced.
4. International postal money orders are better than TCs if you have to pay for TCs.
5. Wells Fargo is giving the market rate on ATM withdrawals (something they didn’t do with wire transfers). The $5 per withdrawal fee can be painful, however, especially if you have a limit below $500 on daily withdrawal amounts.

A few other items to note… The Japanese post office cash rate was the same as that found at the banks in the airport (i.e., 2 points worse than TCs). Most Japanese banks still do not accept foreign ATM cards. Citibank, Mitsui, and 7 Bank are the only ones that I have found that do. Mitsui and 7 Bank ATMs only give out 10,000 yen notes so if you are trying to get, say, 49,000 yen then they aren’t the way to go. Japanese post offices do accept foreign ATM cards. There are Citibank and 7 Bank ATM machines near the second set of escalators heading down to the Keisei Line in Terminal 1 of the Narita airport. Get your daily ATM withdrawal amount raised with your bank to more than $500 before going to Japan. Withdraw your maximum amount, less frequently, to avoid fees. Credit cards should not be used in Japan now that the credit card companies are all charging at least $3 per transaction plus a 3% foreign currency charge.