International travel and banking: Part 2

A few days ago I wrote about some of the research I’ve been doing to prepare for a trip to Spain. That post focused on some of the challenges of using U.S.-issued debit cards in Europe. In this post I’ll share what I’ve learned about another concern when using credit and debit cards: fees.

There are so many fees associated with banking these days (and they can change so often) that’s it’s often hard to keep track of them. In doing my research into fees I may encounter while banking in Europe, I was also confused by the lack of consistency in terminology.

No matter what they’re called, it’s impossible to conduct a transaction in a currency different from the one you have in hand without paying some sort of fee or penalty. Even if you start out with cash, you’ll have to pay a fee to convert it to the local currency. Using one of the major credit card brands — Visa, MasterCard, or American Express — there is a minimum 1% fee levied on the transaction. That fee can even be as high as 2-3%.

I’m OK with those fees, actually. There is a business cost to the transaction and someone must pay it. What I’m not supportive of, though, are the extra fees charged by the bank who issues you the credit card. The bank does nothing here, but often charges an additional percentage-based fee on the transaction. If you read through the links above, though, you’ll see that some banks are a better deal than others.

Capital One does not charge an extra fee for “foreign transactions,” and for this reason I opened a new account with them. My first statement period was a bit rockier than I’d like, but so far I’m managing and I’m sure I’ll be glad to have their fee-free service when running up bills for lodgings and transportation while in Spain. The card I got through Capital One is actually a rewards card, too, so I should earn some cash back on the transactions. 🙂

But I think I’ll also carry my work issued American Express card with me for emergency back up. This card is only supposed to be used for business expenses, but I think my employer would be OK with me using it for an emergency. The fees for using American Express are more than those with my Capital One MasterCard, but less than they would be for the Visa card I still have from a small U.S. bank. Unfortunately my beloved Discovercard (beloved due to its cash back rewards, only) will be useless in Europe.

The other place where people usually get hit by fees is when using ATMs to get local currency. Most travel sites these days recommend forgoing the old approach of loading up on traveler’s checks or carrying lots of U.S. dollars to exchange along the way. If you’re going to a major European country, you should have no issue with finding an ATM where you can securely get Euros.

Many U.S. banks will also dig into your pocket to secure additional fees for these transactions, too. I ran into this issue just a few months ago while taking a business trip to Toronto. I didn’t think about needing local currency for anything, but it ended up I needed to get some Canadian dollars for cab fare one evening. One trip to the ATM of a major bank for $60 resulted in nearly $7 in fees: a flat $5 from my bank, plus an additional $1.75 fee from Visa for the currency conversion.

Note that there was no fee from the Bank of Montreal terminal from which I retrieved the cash. Apparently only in the U.S. are we subjected to additional fees from ATMs that aren’t branded by the bank in which we keep our accounts. When using an ATM in Spain to get Euros, then, I’ll still be subject to the 1-2% fee leveraged by Visa or MasterCard. The trick is to avoid add-on fees by my bank for not using an ATM with their logo on it.

If I had thought to do the research before leaving for my business trip to Toronto I would have discovered that my little used credit union account is the best value for these currency-securing transactions. I’ve had an account at this credit union since I was a child, and I nearly closed it recently because it is not useful for me in daily life. (There are no branches or ATMs anywhere near my house, and there is only one ATM that is remotely close to my office downtown.)

But I’ve very glad I did not close it now, because they don’t charge any fees for using ATMs that are not branded by them. All the fees associated with ATM use of this account here in the U.S. are charged by the banks that “own” the ATM at which I would perform the transaction. How did I confirm this? I called the credit union and I grilled them about their fees. Yes, I will still pay that 1-2% currency conversion fee to Visa, but I won’t pay the credit union any additional flat rate or percentage on the transaction.

So, I’ll still follow common sense rules about ATM use, such as using the ATMs associated with major banks and not travel companies. But at least I can feel comfortable traveling around with only small amounts of cash while in major cities that have plenty of ATMs. And hopefully that will make me less of a target for theft.

About a dog

Hannah dog

This is Hannah. She’s almost eight years old.

When I first met her at Chicago Animal Care and Control she was about 10 months old. I know nothing about her life before the shelter, but from the beginning there were problems to address, some of which added up to be much more expensive than planned.

First, she had worms. She was supposed to have been treated for worms, but right away I discovered that she had tapeworms and hookworms. Since she wasn’t completely house-broken, I often had to take her out into the yard during the middle of the night. Seeing something wiggling in the dim streetlights one night was a major clue. Worming treatments were one of the first things we had to arrange with the family veterinarian.

Then there was an unexpected surgery. A condition of her adoption was that she be spayed at the shelter first. Hannah had some sort of reaction to the suture material, so by the time her sutures were scheduled to be removed she had developed a large abscess. She required a follow-up surgery to remove the internal stitches that had been originally put in place and replace them with something non-allergenic to her.

So for her first month within my home she had stitches in her abdomen. During the 10 days or so that she had the original sutures, she pretty left them alone. But once she started into the second set of 10 days, she apparently decided she was fed up. Hannah had to wear a “cone of shame” so she wouldn’t mess with the stitches.

Hannah in the "cone of shame"

Hannah has also proven to be a very orally fixated dog. (As if there were another type, right?) Within her first year, she destroyed a pair of fairly new Naot sandals; damaged a cedar chest by gnawing on the wooden lid; and chewed up several throw pillows and lap blankets. But her love of chewing on duvets has proven to be her main claim to fame.

So far she’s chewed holes (some of them fairly substantial, textbook-sized holes) in duvets with both feather and synthetic fills. Furthermore, she’s destroyed several duvet covers. Since duvets are not cheap, I’ve tried to fix these things with some crude hand stitching or patching. She chewed her most recent hole (about the size of a half-dollar) in a previously patched feather duvet just a couple days ago. I guess she’s too proud of her claim to fame to give it up.

Besides her duvet-destruction skills, Hannah is most well-known for her inability to relate to her own species in a socially acceptable manner.

Before Hannah, there was another dog in the household: Sadie. Sadie was the special darling that did everything right when mixing it up with other dogs. She had poise and confidence and just the right amount of deference. She was queen of the household, though, and wouldn’t give up her top dog spot. Hannah seemed OK with this arrangement. In their first meeting, Hannah lay down and rolled over onto her back, in the classic submissive posture.

Other than her numerous physical issues, the first four to five months were great. Hannah went to training classes with other dogs and comported herself well. She went to the dog park and ran around with Sadie, while mixing it up with other dogs. But little problems started to appear.

She would get incredibly worked up whenever another dog walked past the yard. A trainer was engaged to help deal with what at first seemed to be “barrier aggression,” but soon proved to be something much different: Hannah had serious issues with unfamiliar dogs. On her last trip to the dog park, she jumped another dog within minutes of entering the park, so I leashed her up and hustled her out of there.

There were trips to a behaviorist who pronounced her issue “fear aggression” and provided us with exercises that were supposed to gradually — very gradually — get her to look to me for cues on how to react whenever she was feeling anxious. And he said these discouraging words “She’ll likely never be a dog park dog.”

So, if Hannah would never be able to mix with her own kind in a social way, what was the point of all the exercises? After a few months, I stopped them. She was getting along OK with Sadie, yet the whole situation left me feeling sad. I knew I couldn’t bring her back to the shelter because she would end up being destroyed. I contemplated whether I should try to find her a new home. I cried. I mourned the loss of a well-adjusted dog who could be taken nearly everywhere at will: the homes of family and friends with other dogs, the local parks, and kennels for extended stays during vacations.

But I also started researching the hell out of dog training and behavior modification, and I found some really useful books:

The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson

How to Be Leader of the Pack…and have your dog love you for it, Patricia McConnell

The Cautious Canine, Patricia McConnell

The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell

Don’t Shoot the Dog!, Karen Pryor

On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid Rugaas

I got lazy and didn’t work with Hannah very much over the last few years. Losing Sadie so unexpectedly about two months ago was tragic for me, but for Hannah it meant that she lost the only other member of her own species with whom she could relate. Suddenly Hannah and I were alone.

Looking for...something

Now I have a new opportunity to work one-on-one with Hannah, and I’m trying to rise to the challenge. Reviewing all my training books again, and talking with her dog walker, I have hope.

I think (and the dog walker agrees) that much of her problem is one of manners due to poor socialization. She likely didn’t get much exposure to other dogs before her adoption and so she hadn’t learned how to nicely approach other dogs. My reaction to her problem — sequestering her away from all other dogs — didn’t help the situation, although it’s apparently all too common. So much of the “problems” with dogs are really more problems with human interpretation of dog behavior. They usually work it out by themselves without any intervention from us.

The trick is finding a way to smooth off her rough edges while not alienating or harming any other dogs that she tries to mix with.

So we have our challenge ahead of us. But we also have the luxury of time, too. I hope.

International travel and banking: Part 1

Today’s post at Get Rich Slowly has reminded me to record some research I’ve been doing into banking while traveling outside the U.S. For the past several months I’ve been flirting with the idea of a trip to Spain. So far this has resulted in lots of logistics planning, but no actual bookings. Nonetheless, I’ve learned some important things that will help when I do finally get there.

While in Spain, I will be conducting purchases with both cash and credit card. I may use a debit card, too, but since I would not get the same purchase protection with a debit card as I will with a credit card, then I’ll likely just use my credit card to pay for lodgings and transit whenever possible.

I’ll also need cash for things like incidental purchases (water, small snacks, etc.) and potentially for bigger purchases such as transportation tickets at unattended stations. And here’s where the first important lesson begins.

Unfortunately for U.S. travelers, the credit and debit cards issued by U.S. banks do not meet the security standards used in most European countries. This means that if I need to buy a train/bus/metro ticket at an unattended station, I’ll most likely need cash.

In Europe the security standard for debit and credit card purchases is referred to as chip and PIN. A smartchip is embedded in the card and for a transaction to be successful the purchaser must key in the correct PIN associated with that smartchip. This standard is supposed to be much more secure than the one used in the U.S. that involves swiping the card and simply checking a signature and/or ID. The U.S. just hasn’t adopted this standard yet, which adds a layer of complexity to travel planning.

While there usually isn’t a problem making purchases with U.S.-issued credit cards at hotels, restaurants, and shops, travelers have reported problems purchasing tickets from machines with their cards. Cash will work in the machines, though, so I’ll try to plan ahead to have the right amount of cash on hand or to purchase tickets from agents only.

Recently a chip and PIN pre-paid foreign currency card has become available in the U.S. I’ve looked at this card offered by Travelex and while it does have some benefits, I’m not sure yet if I’ll give it a try. Putting my vacation funds on a pre-paid card would certainly help me stay within a set budget, and since it’s a chip and PIN card, I should be able to use the card at metro ticket machines and other unattended vending stations. Since I work not far from a Travelex office, I may make time to stop in one day and ask about what fees may be associated with using their Cash Passport before I commit. In just looking at the Terms and Conditions online, the fact that it will cost €1.75 per ATM withdrawal alone makes it pretty unpalatable to me.

Increasingly the chip and PIN standard is becoming the norm. Canadian banking institutions are now issuing these cards and I’ve even gone so far as to research whether it would be worthwhile to open a Canadian bank account so I could get one. So far, it looks like I’ll just have to get used to using currency when I run into situations where my credit or debit card won’t work. And that will lead me right into the next topic in Part 2: minimizing transaction fees. More to come!

Things I don’t like: driving

Welcome to a new feature: things I don’t like. Yeah, it doesn’t sound buoyantly positive, but let’s be honest, everyone has their likes and dislikes.

I just recently came to the realization that I don’t like driving. There are exceptions, of course. I don’t mind driving during vacation on a wide open expressway with a fun companion in my car, but how often does that happen? No, I really don’t like being in the driver’s seat of a car at all.

I grew up in the suburbs where it was essential that one have a car. Getting from home to a job, a movie theater, or a friend’s house, required a driver’s license and a car. In my mid-twenties I moved from the suburbs to the city and starting taking public transit to work every day, and taking care of most of my chores via walking. I loved it.

Considering the statistics about commuting via car in Chicago, I’m sure I’m not alone. One of my friends lives in the city but has to commute via car to her job in the suburbs. This reverse commute is pretty common in our area these days, but it’s also miserable.

Commuting is not the only hardship. Parking in Chicago can be very problematic and expensive. And then there are the red light cameras to contend with, too. It’s like driving has become a sport where it’s nearly impossible to win; it’s downright discouraging, to say the least.

So I take public transit a lot, and when the weather is good I ride my bike a lot, too. If I have to pick up a prescription, a library book, or a standard load of groceries, I prefer to do it by bike when the weather is favorable. If I had more flexibility in my schedule, I’d be happy to do many of these tasks just by walking. But for many months out of the year, that’s a challenge here in the cold north.

Even though I continue to live in the city, there are certainly times when it is useful to have a car. My parents and some of my friends still live in the suburbs and it would be hard to live without a car for that reason alone. When loading up on groceries and heavier essentials (such as laundry detergent and lots of food in cans), using a car is very convenient. So I do have a car and I do drive it. But it’s a dreaded chore.

One thing I am glad for is that my guy doesn’t seem to mind driving. So when there are chores that require driving, I’m happy to schedule those for times when he’s available to occupy the driver’s seat.

How do you feel about driving? Do you like it in general, or only under certain circumstances?

A close call

I opened a new credit card account with Capital One last month and just narrowly missed getting slapped with some huge fees from it. My first payment is due tomorrow. I never received a statement or alert, though, letting me know this fact. Let’s walk through the facts and decision points here to see where I may have missed some cues.

Mid-December: I apply for a no-fee Capital One rewards credit card online. I get approved and receive confirmation that a card will be mailed to me.

I receive the card within a week, but I don’t call to activate it for a few days. (When I do call to activate the card, it’s an annoying process. The agent tells me it will take a few minutes to activate; in the meantime, she tries to sell me other services such as identity theft protection and credit report services. I decline the services and have to fend off Stage Two of the script by refusing to engage. When asked what I’m currently doing to monitor my credit I say, “I decline to answer.” Because, of course, no matter what response you give they have a matching sales-oriented response to give you in return. Unless you basically stop playing the game by not giving them any response such as I did. Or by being obtuse such as saying something like “Peanut butter loves chocolate!”)

December 25: I receive an automated email from Capital One encouraging me to enroll in online banking. I scan it a few days later when I’m back home from my holiday travel.

January 1: I use the Capital One card for the first time. I make two purchases that day.

January 3: I charge my orthodontist visit to the card. That’s a $400 purchase. (I have to pay up front then get reimbursed by my dental insurance; this is pretty typical for dental and medical visits with specialists.)

January 9: I finally enroll in online banking. I look at my account activity and everything looks fine. I also elect to go paperless and not receive my statements in the mail. I look for my statement closing date and payment due date.

January 11: I receive an email from Capital One with a subject line of “Less paperwork is a good thing.” It confirms that I recently asked to stop receiving paper statements and gives me instructions on how to log into online banking. It notes “Starting with your next billing cycle, your statement will only be available online.” A few lines down the email states: “We’ll also send you an e-mail as soon as your current statement is available. Feel free to use that monthly email as a reminder to schedule an online payment.”

January 14: I receive an email from Capital One with some tips on how to earn rewards faster.

January 17 (today): I recall that when I enrolled in online banking on January 9 that my account payment due date was January 18, so I think it would be a good idea to verify that. I log in to my Capital One online banking, and sure enough: my payment is due tomorrow. I pay the nearly $800 bill in full (as I had planned to do) and make a PDF copy of the confirmation page which says that my payment will be credited today (despite it being a federal holiday). Crisis averted!


So, has there very recently been some sort of change in how credit card statements and billing is handling? Why did I not receive a statement from Capital One via regular mail or email? Did the timing of my enrollment in online banking throw the whole process off?

I’ve had at least one credit card of some type for the past 24 years. In that time I’ve always received a statement with my account activity and billing due date for any type of account I’ve had (department store account, Visa, MasterCard, Discovercard…you name it, I’ve had them all over the years). That statement may be printed on paper and mailed to my home or it may be sent to me via email. But I always get a statement, and it always notes when my payment is due.

I’m usually mistrustful of financial institutions and this incident makes we wonder if this is a routine process for Capital One. Aren’t they required to issue a statement? Or is there some way for them to opt  out as long as they provide notification in the very fine print of their terms and conditions? It would certainly be a great way for them to turn a no-fee account into a major revenue generator from customers who aren’t paying close attention to their credit card activity.

When I logged in to my account today, I noticed this small hperlink I could click to set up account alerts. I made sure to follow it today and set an email alert for 10-days before my payment is due. And I’m extremely grateful for the miracle of electronic banking that allowed me to instantly make the payment. Phew!

Friends and communities

I’m hosting a crafternoon today and am looking forward to a fun day of socializing. I think it was my friend Chris who first used the word “crafternoon” around me; we’ve been doing this for years, but didn’t have a word for it until clever Chris coined one.

What is a crafternoon? Well, it’s a gathering — usually in a private home — where friends get together to work on crafts. Pretty much all of my women friends knit, and many are good at other crafts, too. During crafternoons we’ve had people working simultaneously on knitting, crochet, hand-stitching, and machine sewing projects.

We’ll see what people bring today. I plan on knitting (and maybe finishing my Featherweight cardigan!) and possibly doing a bit of sewing. Sewing isn’t one of my favorite things to do, but I have some major mending to do on a down comforter and duvet cover that Hannah dog chewed a hole in last year. I really need a better duvet cover than the worn out one currently on my bed, and rather than buy a new one I’m going to try to patch up one I already have on hand.

Over the past few months, I’ve started reading a few new blogs and expanding the online community to which I relate. Online community gets built the same way real-time community gets built: common interests. Reading one blog often leads to reading another blog that’s been linked to in one way or another (comments count here!), and if that blog remains interesting before you know it you’re regularly reading that blog, too. Reading blogs often reads to commenting on blogs (at least for me), which then leads the blogger to look at your blog, and so on and so on.

In this way I’ve added a few new blogs my reading/commenting list:

Everyday Tips and Thoughts

First Gen American

Grumpy rumblings of the untenured

I am the working poor

Invest it Wisely

Since My Divorce

Single Mom, Rich Mom

I first read these blogs because they were linked in some way from a personal finance blog that I started reading when I was getting divorced (Get Rich Slowly). I continue to go back to them because they are about more than just personal finance and the personality of the bloggers shines through their writings. They seem like people with whom I’d like to be social.

Since I started writing my blog years ago with no set goal in mind, it’s also refreshing to read blogs from others who have very definite objectives. Most of these bloggers want to build a second income from their writing and/or are using blogging to launch a writing career. Building their online communities is key to reaching their objectives, so these bloggers are very good about linking to each other and responding to comments. I am not so good at that, but I’m going to try to be better.

Perhaps I do need to establish some goals for my blogging. (Yeah, not too long ago I said I was going to write every Sunday, which I think counts as a goal. I haven’t done so well with that, though.) I think I’ve resisted setting blogging goals for so long because I seem prone to over-committing and then getting overwhelmed and not carrying through. That leads to me feeling guilty and withdrawing, and so on and so on.

When I first started this post I was enthusing about my imminent gathering with my friends. As I’ve been writing it I’ve been struck by another commonality between real-time community/friendships and online community/friendships: they help you be accountable, even if that  accountability is only to yourself.

So excuse as a I get back to prepping my crafternoon today. I have to get the soup on!

Taking care of business: a knitting post (finally!)

Ooooo! Two consecutive days of blogging!

On this fifth day of illness I think I’m turning the corner and am firmly on the mend. Sometime during the night I regained the ability to breathe through my nose, which is a very good thing. On the other hand, my voice was rough and scratchy last night and barely there this morning. I spent about 10 minutes on a conference call for work early this morning, talking for about one minute all total. Most of my comments were relayed to a colleague via IM and she obligingly was my voice. I took the rest of the day off.

I did venture out for a bit today. I had to get to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription (a maintenance med refill) and also get a few other supplies. I think the short consultation with the pharmacist was the final bit of talking I could manage today. But I did manage to pick out some decent cold medications. My body doesn’t deal with phenylephrine very well, and most cold and flu formulas have some in it. It took a bit of hunting and lots of label reading to find a couple of things that will help me with the remaining symptoms and not mess me up. Gargling with warm salt water seems to be helping my throat, too, so I’m hopeful that I can telecommute tomorrow and participate in all the conference calls.

These past few days of forced down time have really done a lot for me mentally. I finally feel like I’ve had some real time away from the craziness of every day life. Weird how it took getting really sick to make the crazy stop, but there it is. As I feel more well, I also feel refreshed and able to tackle some things that have been roadblocked in some way: like a few knitting projects that have been stuffed in a knitting bag and hidden away for months.

I first started blogging as a way to write about my hobbies of knitting and gardening, but I’ve hardly written about either of these topics in a while. That may be because for me the greatest thing knitting has brought to my life is meaningful relationships. These days, most of my friends are knitting friends. So the actual act of knitting — while still important to me — is not as important as the relationships I have with friends and others. I’m happy with that.

Nonetheless, I decided to clear up some blocked projects. Last year, I made some really bad choices for knitting projects. I did accomplish making some nice things — a couple of hats, a Moebius scarf, a light weight sweater and some socks (of course…I’ve always got a pair of socks on the needles), but I also had started a few projects that languished and I thought it was time to tidy them up. Two of these projects — both sweaters — were Annie Modesitt patterns.

I don’t know what it is about her patterns, but it seems every one I try is doomed. The very first sweater I ever completed was her Pinup Queen pullover (Ravelry link) from Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ‘N Bitch book. I struggled through that pattern and eventually completed it, but it was too large for me. I didn’t understand the concept of ease and thought it was best to err on the large size. I was wrong, and learned a lesson I’ll never forget. I ended up giving it to my niece who has broader shoulders and she seemed to appreciate it. (I’ve never seen her wear it, and I told her once that I’d be happy to take it back so I could reuse the yarn, but nothing ever came from that hint; the yarn was Rowan Summer Tweed and was not cheap, so I was quite serious.)

The two projects that I frogged last night and today were Annie Modesitt patterns gone awry. One was the Twisted Float Cocoon Shrug. I wasn’t very far along on it, and I thought the yarns would be better used for another purpose. Frogging took a while because the yarns were twisted around each other, but now everything is neat and tidy. The other pattern was Charade (Ravelry link) from her Romantic Hand Knits book. I couldn’t bring myself to purchase the original yarn in the pattern since it was so expensive. The yarn I substituted (Katia Jet) may have been less expensive, but it was resulting in a product that would be much too heavy. So…to the frog pond it went!

I now have another clean knitting bag and have freed up some needles and cables. While I may not have completed a project, I think that’s good progress for today. Now, on to some actual knitting! I have only about an inch left on the collar of a Featherweight cardigan (Ravelry link) and a pair of plain socks on the needles. It’s nice to be working on things that are achievable. 🙂

The luxury of time

I’m sick. I’ve had a headcold (or an “upper respiratory infection” to those medically inclined) for four days now. These things usually take about a week to get over, so I’m trying to take it easy and just allow my body to heal. I haven’t had a cold this bad for a few years, but that’s OK. Because I actually feel lucky.

I have a great job with one of the top companies in the country, and when I’m sick it makes me even more aware of how much more fortunate I am compared to so many others. I have a good healthcare plan that is subsidized by my employer, so if I need to visit the doctor (I haven’t needed to do that yet) I can afford to do so.

At this time of year, there are all sorts of viruses and “bugs” being passed around. The media is full of ads for cold and flu remedies, and local pharmacies and grocery stores advertise the availability of flu shots. But this isn’t what people really need to get better when they’re sick. What they need is paid time off work to recover and to get the heck away from those who are still well.

I get paid time off when I’m sick, and I also get the option of telecommuting if I feel well enough to work. Not only that, my company has made it a priority to urge people to stay home if they don’t feel well. Being able to keep my germs to myself is a benefit that too many people don’t have.

And that’s the real way to combat the spread of flu and other nasties that are considered public health problems: make it possible for sick people to stay home.

While I’m ranting, I also want to point out that most of time when people are sick they do *not* have the flu. It’s one of my pet peeves that so many people say they “have the flu” when all they have is a standard cold or viral infection. The flu has very specific symptoms. If a person is not running a fever and does not have body aches and chills, then it’s not the flu.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a flu, and I know I don’t have the flu now. I have a viral infection that has affected mainly my sinuses. At this point it’s also starting to affect my throat and voice, but that will pass. Because I have time to heal. Such a small thing to have, but it makes a huge difference.