MONEY Travel

How to Get the Most Out of Your Frequent Flyer Miles

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Aaron Foster—Getty Images

Don't be loyal to an airline that's not loyal to you.

Earning and using airline miles used to be simple. Fly 25,000 miles and earn a free flight. It is not so simple anymore.

The process of redeeming miles is changing in a way that makes it more difficult for all but elite flyers to earn rewards.

One key change: Delta Air Lines’ announcement in mid-July that its SkyMiles rewards will be based on what you spend, rather than on the distance you travel, and the cost will be based on demand rather than a fixed amount.

Experts like Brian Kelly, known as The Points Guy, expect more major airlines to follow suit.

To help sort out the changes to the miles game, Reuters asked Kelly for his advice for travelers to best take advantage of widely varying airline loyalty programs.

Q: Are airlines suddenly being less loyal to their loyal customers?

A: The real answer is that loyalty is being redefined.

In the past it used to be that whoever flew the most was the most loyal, but airlines are now saying it’s whoever spends the most.

Basically, the wealth gap is increasing between economy and first class, which I guess makes senses as the industry keeps changing.

Q: It seems like all the airlines are treating miles like currency, and devaluing them.

A: Pretty much. Every month there are billions of points and miles pumped into the system. But there are just not that many flights, or hotels for that matter, so they are looking for ways to have you redeem more miles and points for less value, and I don’t see that changing.

Q: What airlines are the most generous to their frequent flyers right now?

A: It really depends on where you live and how much you fly, but I still think American Airlines has the best top-tier elite status. American is also the most generous, in my opinion, with international upgrades giving eight system-wide upgrades, versus six on United.

Q: What should travelers look for when they are deciding which airline loyalty program to focus on?

A: Travelers should not have blind loyalty. The biggest thing is don’t put all your miles in one basket. You should get a credit card that allows you to transfer to multiple programs.

You can be loyal to one airline, but don’t over-expose yourself because that program will probably change or that airline won’t fly where you want, so it’s good to have points in all different programs just like your stock portfolio.

Q: Is it even worth it to try to accumulate points with credit cards?

A: Always do the math. If you’re not getting at least 1-2 cents per mile in value you should really just think about getting a cash-back card. The Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Amex both give about 2% back. Why earn one airline mile that’s worth one cent when you could get 2 cents back in cash, which you could use toward anything?

Also, don’t always think that airline mileage cards – especially ones where you’re only earning one mile per dollar spent – are the best value. Sometimes cash is king and the ability to use that cash to purchase whatever you want is a great option.

Q: What strategy should consumers employ for travel this summer or fall?

A: I would recommend that people redeem miles in the near term, don’t hang on long-term in the next several years because these programs are evolving and they are evolving quickly.

If you are spending a lot of money on short flights you should take a look at Delta and United and the programs that reward based on money.

If you’re an economy traveler, especially international, you’re going to lose big time, so do the math and choose a program that rewards you the most.

And, frankly, don’t be loyal to an airline if they’re not loyal to you. If you’re earning less miles and paying more and not getting the perks, it’s time to rethink your strategy.

Read next: This Is the Single Greatest Frequent Flyer Perk Ever

MONEY Travel

Tips for Traveling to Greece During Its Financial Crisis

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Marcel Germain—Getty Images 'Little Venice' in Mykonos, Greece

From rethinking your travel insurance to paying with cash.

As Sue Scanlon prepares to visit northern Greece this summer, she is keeping a close eye on the crippling financial crisis that has enveloped the historic Mediterranean nation.

“We have completely rethought our spending options,” said Scanlon, who lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, and works for student travel company Teach by Travel. “We will take it day-to-day and adjust our plans accordingly.”

For honeymooners, vacationers and business travelers alike, Greece’s problems have added an unexpected kink that requires some additional thought and planning.

Not many are canceling or altering their plans now, said Gabe Saglie, senior editor of travel deal site Travelzoo.com, but there are some precautions to take.

Insurance

Normally when there is reason to believe a trip might be interrupted, experts would suggest travel insurance. But these policies mainly deal with routine snafus like lost luggage rather than a nation’s economic woes.

“Probably the only trip insurance that would cover you is ‘cancel for any reason,’ which pays back a percentage,” said Christopher Elliott, author of the book “How to be the World’s Smartest Traveler.”

These policies average around $500 and reimburse you for 50 percent of nonrefundable expenses.

AIG, for instance, offers insurance that would cover a couple’s trip next month from New York to Greece. The price, which ranges from $362 to $756, includes coverage for a trip operator going defunct.

British insurer John Lewis Travel Insurance said it would double its coverage on traveler’s cash in Greece this month at its Plus and Premier level of services.

Elliott says he does not feel people need to cancel a trip to Greece or even avoid taking one. “The bottom line on Greece is people are still going,” he said.

Manage Your Cash

To avoid an immediate cash flow crunch, Frommers.com Editor Jason Cochran suggests avoiding banks in Greece, which have rationed money and drastically reduced their hours. That means carrying enough euros with you and relying on credit cards.

Not all places will accept American Express, he added, so use Visa and MasterCard instead. Also assume you will not be able to use your ATM card while you are there.

Travelzoo’s Saglie suggests carrying prepaid cards, and once there, using hotel safes and deposit boxes to stash valuables you do not want to carry with you.

“Be discreet with your cash and refrain from drawing unwanted attention to the cash you’re carrying,” he said.

Scanlon, for one, is a little worried about safety issues. She, her husband George Sotiropoulos and three kids will probably carry a limited amount of cash and no wallets, purses or backpacks. With their hotel already paid for, she said, feeding the family and putting gas in their rental car would be their main expenses.

But Cochran says there is no need for extreme caution. “Travelers who want to go to Greece don’t have to worry about violence,” he said. “Greece has been going through tough economic times for a few years, and tourists have never been hurt. The Greeks will be grateful that you came.”

Plan Ahead

For those with a longer planning window, the outlook is mixed on whether Greece will be a travel bargain anytime soon, Saglie said. But both he and Cochran noted that Greece’s problems had pushed up the dollar’s value, benefiting all U.S. travelers visiting Europe.

“If Greece does, in fact, exit the euro and resurrect the drachma, that currency would also likely be devalued, making Greece an even bigger travel bargain,” Saglie said.

For those who still do not feel quite comfortable enough to travel into the midst of an economic crisis, there are alternatives, like the Mediterranean coast of Turkey or a cruise.

“You can experience a similar cultural history, including ruins and a festive beach life,” Cochran said. “But summer is high season for Mediterranean cruises, so don’t expect a bargain on those.”

MONEY Travel

What Your Credit Card Does (and Does Not) Cover for Rental Cars

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Blend Images - Dave and Les Jacobs—Getty Images

Loss of personal items is typically excluded.

In the midst of moving from Atlanta to St. Louis last year, Thomas Nitzsche discovered his parked rental car had been hit by another car, causing $791 in damage.

To keep costs low, he had rejected the “collision damage waiver” (CDW) insurance offered by the rental car company, which can run as much as $45 a day and can include a deductible.

Nitzsche, who works for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, says it was big relief to learn the damage was covered by his credit card.

“That was a pretty big chunk of change,” he said.

It took three months or so for the payment to be made from Visa to Hertz, mostly because of requests for more information or the filing of paperwork. In the end, though, the accident cost him nothing out of pocket.

While consumers typically have coverage from their credit cards for accidents, they often do not benefit from the full coverage Nitzsche got. Many people have auto insurance on their regular cars, which acts as the primary insurer in the case of loss or damage. The credit card insurance provided full coverage for Nitzsche because, at the time, he did not own a car.

Know Your Coverage

Not every card affords the same coverage. Most Visa cards will cover theft, damage to the rental car, towing and loss-of-use charges if you do not have a personal auto insurance policy.

However, both Visa and Mastercard exclude injury, property damage and damage to other vehicles, according to website nerdwallet.com.

If you have your own insurance, Visa will reimburse your deductible as well as some other charges your insurer does not cover.

Mastercard’s insurance coverage varies by the issuing bank. A USAA World MasterCard, for example, provides largely the same benefits as Visa, but caps loss of use reimbursement at $500.

A few credit cards automatically offer primary coverage, meaning you are covered even if you have your own car insurance. They include Discover Escape, Chase Sapphire Preferred and United Mileage Plus Explorer.

That could be helpful if you do not want to risk a premium increase on your own car insurance. A study early this year by InsuranceQuotes.com found that a single claim of $2,000 on average boosts rates by 41 percent.

American Express card holders are afforded the opportunity to a pay a one-time fee per rental of $16 to $25 to change their coverage from secondary to primary. You can enroll online or by calling the company.

Most credit card companies require you to refuse the collision damage waiver insurance offered at the car rental counter or it negates the card’s coverage, says Robert Harrow, research analyst for credit card and insurance analysis site ValuePenguin.com.

That can sometimes be difficult with an insistent clerk. Eva Glasrud, who runs a travel blog (http://TheHappyTalent.com), says she repeatedly tried to reject rental car insurance on a trip to Mexico last November. Eventually, the San Francisco resident gave in and took the $20-a-day additional insurance.

“I thought maybe we could get part of it back if I complained when we got home,” she says. “But we never heard anything back.

Exclusions

The fine print can be lengthy. Among the limitations:

* Typically, only physical damage to the rental vehicle due to a collision or theft is covered, but injuries to you or others are not, Harrow says. Those would be covered by your auto insurance policy; if you do not have one, you should take the rental company’s additional personal injury coverage. You can also buy a non-owner liability policy from many auto insurance companies.

* Loss of personal items is typically excluded.

* When traveling overseas, credit cards will not cover you in certain countries, including Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, and New Zealand, Harrow says.

* While it might seem obvious, the card you use to pay has to be used for the entire rental and the bill needs to be in the name of the cardholder, notes Rachel Drake, insurance expert for the insurance shopping site Obrella.com.

Collecting Claims

Collecting payment from a card company can take a while, as Nitzsche found out. Some pay directly to the rental car company while others will reimburse cardholders.

New York media executive Andrea Garcia is still dealing with several hundred dollars in damage to her rental car when it was broken into during a vacation to Miami in May. She says it took some work to file a detailed claim form, provide photographs and jump through other bureaucratic hoops.

Unlike Nitzsche, she had to lay out cash and is still waiting to be reimbursed.

MONEY Travel

When Your Hotel Discount Disappears

hand ringing reception bell
Brian Jackson—Alamy

Extending your stay can have unintended consequences.

Investment adviser Mitch Tuchman scored a deal any traveler would be proud of: $280 a night for a recent stay at the luxurious Viceroy Hotel in Manhattan, where the going rate can exceed more than $500 on a weeknight.

But when a change in plans required him to stay another day, all bets were off. The price soared to $720 a night.

“I can understand a 20%, 30% increase, but we’re talking about 2-1/2 times more money just to stay in my room,” said Tuchman, managing director of Menlo Park, California-based Rebalance-IRA.com.

Hotel experts say big price hikes after a discount runs out are not uncommon, particularly where demand can change significantly in one day.

Weddings, conventions, large events and even the start of the business week can alter a hotel’s pricing dramatically.

In Tuchman’s case, only four of the hotel’s 240 rooms were unbooked for the extra night he wanted, and he was told the expectation was they would sell out.

Scott Pusillo, vice president of market strategy for Viceroy Hotel Group, says rates change with demand.

“Just like airlines, where peak demand days and flight times are priced differently, individual hotel room prices are set on a daily basis,” he said.

How to Negotiate

Travelers have a few options when facing this situation.

The first stop should be the front desk, but be prepared to move on quickly, because there is a high rate of failure, said Clem Bason, chief executive officer of the hotel deal site goSeek.

If you are a frequent guest, that is one card to play. “The higher your status the better,” Bason said.

Many experts advise looking around. “Reserving a room at another hotel within the guest’s ideal price range is probably the safest bet,” said Emily Hughes, co-founder of TripExpert.

You will then also know what kind of prices are reasonable to negotiate.

A couple of challenges await. First, you might not find anything acceptable, either in price or quality. Or, like Tuchman and many others who have already settled into a hotel room, you might dread the idea of packing up your things to head somewhere else for one night.

Raise the Stakes

After failing at the front desk, Tuchman employed a tactic recommended by consumer advocates in most settings: He went higher up the food chain.

To find the right person, travel experts advise asking for the manager on duty, who will usually have the authority to adjust the rate.

Tuchman did this and pleaded his case. The manager offered to drop the rate to $600. Tuchman noted the value of goodwill, and the manager offered a $500 rate.

Realizing he probably would have to pay $425 to $450 a night to stay elsewhere, Tuchman accepted. The lesson: “Everything is negotiable.”

MONEY Taxes

How the Sharing Economy Makes Tax Filing Tougher

Lyft driver
Lyft Being a Lyft driver may not feel too fun at tax time.

When you make money working for a business like Uber, Task Rabbit, or Airbnb, doing your taxes can a pain.

Before Jane LeBoeuf started driving for Uber and Lyft, doing her taxes was cheap and easy.

LeBoeuf would swing by the local H&R Block office, pay $150 and end up with a refund. But now, that is not the case.

The 32-year-old from Providence, R.I. paid $470 this year to a professional tax preparer, and her refund got eaten up by the taxes on her side gig income.

As it is with so many other millennials—whether they are driving for a car service, renting property through Airbnb.com, or picking up jobs through TaskRabbit.com—LeBoeuf needed help sorting out the complexities of freelance income that comes with a host of possible deductions.

“There are a lot of people out there who are starting to realize they don’t have it all together,” says Robert Wheeler, who runs an accounting firm in Santa Monica, Calif. “Things are just getting more complicated. People don’t know what to do.”

Accountants point out that one of the biggest problems they see with those earning a sharing-economy income is a lack of record-keeping.

Freelancers like LeBoeuf agree: “I just find it to be too much for me on a daily basis,” she says.

Sometimes all it takes is asking for record-keeping help during the first year. But others need constant attention. Here are some tips on how to get started:

1. Get the right help

Some accountants are starting to specialize in sharing economy tax strategies, like Derek Davis, 28, who is based in Culver City, Calif.

Davis says he had his eureka moment after a ride home from work one night with an Uber driver who had no idea what expenses he was allowed to deduct, like repairs and gas.

Otherwise, tax preparers who specialize in freelance or small businesses would know their way around a Schedule C, which is where freelancers report income.

Since just about anyone can hang out a shingle that says they do taxes, consider looking for a preparer with certified credentials, which you can find by searching the databases of the National Association of Tax Professionals or the National Association of Enrolled Agents.

2. Develop a record-keeping system

Independent contractors are responsible for recording all their income—not just what is sent to them on a Form 1099. Equally, they are responsible for tracking their own expenses. But this can get very complicated for those tracking mileage—when you can count more than just the actual Uber trips you drive, for instance.

And it can be dizzying for those renting out spaces in their homes. For starters, those renting for fewer than 14 days get a break—they do not owe taxes on the income. Go past that, however, and you can deduct any expense directly related to your rental.

Solutions range from traditional spreadsheets to new apps. Intuit, the parent company of TurboTax, partnered this year with the freelance marketplaces Fiverr.com, UpCounsel.com, and TaskRabbit to offer for free its new QuickBooks Online Self-Employed, which can be directly transferred to TurboTax.

Among independent efforts, Derek Davis developed his own free app—Tabby Tax—to help sharing economy workers keep track of expenses.

Drivers can use any number of tools such as MileIQ, EasyBiz Mileage Tracker, and Easy Mile Log to keep track of car expenses.

3. Know what you owe

LeBoeuf was surprised how much her extra income boosted her tax liability and lowered her usual refund. But some people are caught by an even greater surprise—owing money to the Internal Revenue Service.

Many new contractors learn the hard way that you have to pay taxes on freelance income quarterly rather than rely on an employer to deduct enough taxes from a paycheck. Most tax software programs, and any tax professional, should be able to generate an estimate of what you will have to pay based on your projected earnings. Then you can adjust as you go so you do not end up with a penalty for underpayment.

MONEY Banking

The Hidden Risks of Paying Your Bills Automatically

open wallet
Alamy

It's convenient to put your regular bills on autopilot. Just don't ignore them entirely or you might find yourself short on cash.

Autopaying bills is a no-brainer. You are never late with a payment, and you do not have to spend all that time going through stacks of bills, filling out checks, and then stuffing and stamping envelopes.

But Brent Cumberford learned the hard way that automatic bill paying is not as simple as setting it up and walking away.

Last year, his natural gas was turned off because expected automated payments were not made, a canceled subscription kept getting paid and another canceled service automatically renewed itself.

Cumberford, 32, who runs the personal finance site Vosa.com and splits his time between San Diego and Calgary, resolved the natural gas situation without figuring out what exactly went wrong (the bank and the utility blamed each other) and got the automatic renewal credited back. But he is still dealing with the subscription.

“The lesson I learned was that it’s important to still track automated payments,” Cumberford says.

About 61% of Americans have set at least one bill to pay automatically, says Eric Leiserson, a senior research analyst for financial technology services company Fiserv.

The main reason consumers use autopay is to make sure bills are paid on time. That is vital to their credit scores when it comes to debts like car loans, credit card balances, and mortgages, but most other on-time payments are not recorded.

A recent study by credit reporting firm Experian, however, suggests that including positive utility payment histories, which is not commonly done, could help elevate the credit scores of millions of Americans. The report also says people with thin credit histories would benefit from having a richer record of payments made.

As much as automation can be a positive, there are plenty of catches to be watch out for:

1. Changing accounts

If you decide to pay from a different account, be sure all the changes are in place. Marketing consultant Peter Brooks, 56, of Vallejo, Calif., says it was a big hassle to re-enter all the payment information after he changed checking accounts.

2. Being short of funds when bills are paid

Not having enough money in the bank is a main reason not to automate bill paying. If you have a bill set up to pay automatically and you lack money to pay it, this could affect your credit history as much as forgetting to mail in the check. Being on time 99% of the time does not help you much, but missing one payment could hurt your credit score for years.

3. Continued withdrawals even if you stop using the service

Monthly recurring charges for services can keep occurring even if you asked for them to stop. A gym membership or subscription set to be paid automatically every month could lag a request to cancel. So it is vital to keep an eye out to see if withdrawals persist after you have canceled a service, experts say.

4. Inadvertently disengaging the automated payments by making one manually

Bob Girolamo, 41, of Chicago, who runs the startup data and statistics organizer Sorc’d, learned that the hard way. He says he made a manual payment for his health insurance that disengaged the autopay. He did not notice the missed payments until he received the cancellation notice.

5. Errant payments

Monitoring transactions is key to fixing errors. Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, says putting payment dates in an online calendar is one way to stay on top of what payments should be going out. “With 24-7 online and mobile account access, keeping tabs on your account is easier than ever,” he says. “Taking a matter of seconds each day is all it takes.”

MONEY Pets

How to Turn Your Dog into a Cash Cow

Boo the Pomeranian, named the cutest dog in the world Cutest Dog in the World Flies High
Virginamerica/Rex Features—AP Boo the Pomeranian, named the "cutest dog in the world."

Social media can be big business for pets, too.

Your dog may never make it like the beagle Miss P, winner of the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club’s best in show award, but he or she may still have a shot at becoming a YouTube star or nabbing a modeling contract based on an Instagram photo.

It happened for Tuna, a Chiweenie mix of Chihuahua and dachshund. This unlikely Internet star, found as a stray at a California farmer’s market, has more than a million followers on Instagram because of his cartoonish overbite. A book, The Underdog with the Overbite, goes on sale in two weeks with a list price of $14.95.

At the pinnacle is a dog named Boo, a Pomeranian with 17 million fans on Facebook, multiple books and a line of toys. He even got a deal from Virgin America Inc to be its official “pet liaison.”

To bring in money, you need more than a random clip of your dog doing something funny. It takes an orchestrated campaign to gain enough popularity to merit offers from corporate sponsors, get product placement deals, and move merchandise.

“People who have over half a million followers are getting serious money,” says Katie Sturino, who owns Toast, a King Charles pup with no teeth and a tongue that hangs from her mouth. “The ones who have really broken out are getting a lot.”

Rescued from a puppy mill, Toast has 168,000 followers on Instagram. Sturino says she has been working with companies looking for product placement or endorsements.

Going Viral

What captivates a mass audience and goes viral usually is not a fluke, says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. You need a good story to get started, and then you need a savvy strategy.

“We often look at these videos and think they must be luck or by chance,” Berger says. “Can you guarantee that something will go viral and get millions and millions of page views? No, but you can guarantee it will do better.”

Animal advocate and author Wendy Diamond says the biggest influencers are those who have a following and a personality.

“Your dog either has to have a deformity or a disability or a well-connected parent,” Diamond says.

Boo’s connection is clear. His owner, Irene Ahn, is an executive at Facebook Inc, although she has stayed out of the limelight during her dog’s climb.

But there are other routes to the top.

Jon Huang and his girlfriend, Amber Chavez, got Manny, a French bulldog who was the unwanted runt of the litter, at a half-price discount four years ago.

What started as a way to share photos and videos of their puppy with friends and family exploded in the past couple of years to following of about 796,000 on Facebook and 643,000 on Instagram.

“Basically, I just started posting unique pictures,” says Huang, 37.

After photos of Manny sleeping in a sink went viral, the dog’s popularity started to swell. As the monetary potential became clear, Huang says they made charity a big part of the Manny craze. Team Manny has raised more than $100,000 in the past year.

Manny has deals with Evanger’s Dog Food and Zico Coconut Water, among others. With all the merchandising, fundraising, deals, appearances and travels (a 15-city tour that goes from coast-to-coast), Chavez now is working full-time with Manny.

“There would be no way to manage all the stuff without her quitting her job,” says Huang. “We didn’t expect any of this. It happened so fast.”

MONEY technology

How to Trim Your Internet Bill After You Cut the Cord on Cable

laptop with cord in shape of piggy bank
Atomic Imagery—Getty Images

Pay attention to how much speed you're paying for—and what you really need.

You can cut your land line and sever your cable TV, but if you want to stream the new season of “House of Cards,” you need to hang on to your Internet connection. Whatever savings you might achieve by ditching other services, you will almost certainly give them back as your bill for Web connectivity inexorably creeps up.

Consumers now pay an average of $50 a month for a broadband connection to the Web, which is up from a monthly average of about $40 a decade ago. But costs can vary widely—ranging from $10 to $120— depending on whether the service is bundled with cable and phone, is an introductory rate, and depending also on your connectivity speed.

Cutting costs for Internet starts with understanding what you are currently paying. Most people cannot even parse this out because their bills are a jumble of bundled pricing and fees, says Kim Komando, who has hosted a national radio talk show on computers and technology for more than 20 years.

“If you haven’t looked at your whole internet package, then it’s time to go through it A-Z,” she said.

The items to look for include: the base price, speed surcharges, and equipment. If you cannot figure it out based on the arcane coding on your bill, call and ask.

One potential way to save is to buy your own modem/router combination—at $50 to $100, you could quickly make up the $5 to $10 a month rental fee you may be charged.

Another variable to control is your speed. A study released recently by the Federal Communications Commission says standalone Internet service that delivers 10-25 megabits per second (Mbps) is becoming the standard for the typical family that streams video. Many, however, opt for even higher speeds.

You could be paying for more than you need, or getting less than you expect because the wiring to your home simply cannot deliver.

The bottom line, according to savings expert Andrea Woroch, is do not pay for more speed than you need. Someone who goes online mainly to check email could make it work with a connection of 1 Mbps rather than the typical offering of 10 Mbps or more.

Some of the biggest cable providers are offering “basic” Internet connections for about $15 a month for these light users. The same deal applies for DSL, a slower Internet connection offered by phone companies and delivered over traditional phone lines. Light users will enjoy a decent price compared with those who pay for high-speed broadband, but the trade-off is that they cannot expect to stream movies without frustration or engage in video game battles online.

For those who want to make sure they are getting the speed they are paying for, numerous websites such as SpeedTest.net measure the actual speed of your connection.

If it turns out that you are paying for one speed but are receiving far less, Komando said it is important to go back to your provider and ask for an adjustment.

Vote With Your Feet

The next step is to call the competition, if you have alternate service providers in your area. If you do not, Woroch said it is still worth calling your provider to ask for a lower rate.

If you price out a cheaper plan, you can ask your current company to match it.

If they balk, all the better. The best deals can come from the cancellations department, says Ian Aronovich, 42, of Great Neck, New York.

Aronovich, who runs the website GovernmentAuctions.org, says he first went to Cablevision Systems Corp, his provider, about four years ago and asked for a rate that would match the introductory offer of a competitor. That deal bundled phone, TV and Internet for about $90 rather than the more than $150 he was paying.

After following up yearly to ask for better rates, Aronovich is still receiving about the same discount today—which works out to $29.99 for a high-speed connection with a free router.

MONEY Food & Drink

Why Organic Chocolate Isn’t Always Worth the Price

Dagoba organic chocolate
James F. Quinn—KRT/Newscom Dagoba organic chocolate

An organic label doesn't mean the candy will taste any better, and premium chocolate that is yummier may not actually be organic.

If you plunk down some big bucks for organic chocolate this Valentine’s Day, your sweetie may or may not be impressed.

Despite what some people say, such candy does not taste better just because the ingredients are organic, according to experts. The manufacturing process plays a major part.

Andy Ciordia, owner of The Secret Chocolatier in Charlotte, North Carolina, says consumers are most likely to notice that mass-produced chocolates using a cacao solution taste flatter than those made on a smaller scale and with natural ingredients.

Among the best-known organic brands are Dagoba from Hershey Co, Green & Black’s from Mondelez International Inc’s Cadbury and Newman’s Own.

To be called “organic,” a chocolate bar must consist only of certified organic ingredients. That means pesticides and genetically modified ingredients cannot be used.

Other chocolates, including the high-end and artisanal kind, may use similar standards but simply lack the certification. Most of what you find at fancy chocolatiers is not organic.

The certification costs money, which is one reason organic chocolate costs more.

You can pay still more if you buy from the growing number of bean-to-bar organic chocolate makers.

Acquiring beans from small co-ops and farms rather than the bulk market and the time-intensive way to produce a chocolate bar results in the big premium.

A typical 1.8-ounce bar made by Raaka Chocolate in Brooklyn, New York, for example, retails for $7.99, or $4.44 an ounce.

At a Walmart store, though, you can find a 3.5-ounce organic Green & Black’s bar for 94¢ an ounce. Ounce for ounce, that is still more expensive than what the chain charges for a premium Lindt bar, which is not organic, at 71¢ or a giant bar of Hershey’s Special Dark for 29¢.

But bean-to-bar chocolate is likely to have only two or three ingredients, usually the beans and sugar, sometimes cocoa butter.

By contrast, a bar of Hershey Special Dark has sugar, chocolate, cocoa butter, cocoa processed with alkali, milk fat, lactose, soy lecithin, PGPR (emulsifier), vanillin, artificial flavor, milk.

A Matter of Principle

U.S. sales of organic chocolate and organic candy bars were up 16.5% in 2013, according to the latest Organic Trade Association data.

That is quadruple the growth rate for the overall chocolate market, says Curtis Vreeland, president of confectionery industry market research firm Vreeland & Associates.

However, he notes, the organic side represents only about 1% of the $20 billion U.S. chocolate market.

Perhaps that is because buying organic is more about principles than product.

“The primary reason for purchasing organic chocolate is the social and environmental motivation,” says Carl Jorgensen, director of global consumer strategy-wellness for the branding firm Daymon Worldwide.

Amy Grey, 24, a writer for exercise bike retailer Spinning’s website in Venice, California, says eating organic chocolate makes sense.

“You wash your fruit and vegetables to get the pesticides off before you eat them, but you can’t really wash your chocolate to get rid of those chemicals,” Grey says. “Organic chocolate means no pesticides and no harmful chemicals being put into your body.”

MONEY Travel

Why You Should Book Your Summer Vacation Now

Rome, Italy
Image Source—Gallery Stock Rome, Italy

Planes are expected to be crowded, so finding low fares will take some work and advance planning.

With snow piling up in much of the United States, it might seem a bit early to start thinking about summer. But if you want to take a vacation on your terms, travel experts say now is the time to get the ball rolling.

Cheaper fuel prices, a strong dollar, and an economy on the upswing mean consumers will have a lot of competition booking airplane seats for summer vacations. “This is the perfect storm,” says Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare.com, which analyzes airfares.

While experts say expectations of a booming summer travel season will prompt airlines to add capacity, the companies’ computer models will adjust pricing according to ticket sales. The fewer the seats left, the sharper the price increases.

Expect prices to rise through the spring, says Tom Spagnola, senior vice president for travel service CheapOair.com. Travelers should start booking international flights this month and domestic flights in the next month or two.

Asia- and Latin America-bound vacationers might find some bargains, while the carriers’ sharing alliances that dominate the business will probably limit the availability of deals elsewhere, says airline industry consultant Bob Mann.

How To Gear Up

To shop now, use one or more of the airline pricing websites to get notified of changes. Among those offering free fare alert services are Kayak, Yapta, Airfarewatchdog, CheapOair, and FareCompare.

A flight from New York to Paris on American Airlines on June 25 for one week would cost $1,232 non-stop round-trip if booked now. Trying for another day could reduce the price by $100 or more, so it is best to be flexible about travel dates.

And if you are willing to fly on a no-frills discount airline, you could pay even less. XL Airways France has a flight for $1,097 round-trip.

The day of the week you fly matters, FareCompare’s Seaney says. To get the best prices, try booking a flight for a Tuesday, Wednesday, or a Saturday.

On longer trips, Seaney suggests considering a connecting flight to get further savings. An example: An early summer non-stop from Washington, D.C., to Rome costs about $2,047 round-trip on United, compared with as low as $1,036 if you toss in a stop in Istanbul and fly Turkish Airlines.

You may want to vacation during off-peak periods. Seaney notes that the higher summer-season pricing does not start until after the first week in June and typically tapers down after the third week of August.

Also, keep an eye on the total price of a ticket, which can include taxes, surcharges, and fees as well as airfare.

For instance, there is still a $450 fuel surcharge levied on flights to Europe, but Seaney says it is just a matter of time before that is dropped or lowered because energy prices are so low.

Flights into and out of London’s Heathrow Airport carry an extra $70 to $90 tax, so you may want to use a different nearby airport, like Gatwick.

Cruise for Deals

This time every year, the cruise industry dangles its best deals during the so-called wave season—buy now for trips during the rest of the year.

“Now is when people will find some of the best pricing of the year and, more importantly, the best incentives,” says Gabe Saglie, senior editor for discount travel site Travelzoo.

One recent deal promoted on Travelzoo offered free drinks, prepaid gratuities and a $100 shore excursion credit on a 10-day Alaska cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line—about $1,200 in perks. An ocean-view room for a midsummer sailing was going for about $1,800 per person (based on double occupancy) with those bonuses tossed in.

Related: 6 Ways to Be a Savvier Traveler in 2015

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