Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exchanging Money

Most banks offer reasonable exchange rates. And using your ATM card overseas is normally reasonable as well. I was able to use my Washington, DC-area bank ATM card in a Citibank ATM in Hong Kong and only got charged a $2.00 fee. Plus the exchange rate was comparable to what the market was charging. Contrast that to the Telex kiosk I used to get some pocket change - which charged me a $6 exchange fee and only gave me 90 cents on the dollar. Telex offered a lousy deal.

Capital One credit cards do not charge an exchange rate. Most other major credit card companies (Chase, Citi, Bank of America,...) charge around 3% on top of your purchase to cover the exchange rate. One thing to keep in mind about Capital One is their credit limits are normally low. So if you do use the Capital One credit card, make sure you don't exceed the credit limit. Otherwise you will get charged an overage fee.

The recommendation is to have enough pocket change to pay for a cab ride to your hotel. Then use your ATM card to get additional cash. And have a few U.S. dollars on hand if the ATMs are down.

A few dollars here and there for the exchange rate doesn't seem like a lot. But I'd rather use that extra money for food and other purchases than give it to the money changers. Some people would rather use their credit cards to collect points for future rewards. Using the options that best suit your needs is always the best way to go. Just remember to spend a little time figuring out what the best options are.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

MTR - Hong Kong

The MTR or Mass Transit Railway is Hong Kong's subway, bus and light rail service provider. The subway system is clean, efficient and reasonably priced. The biggest question that kept running through my mind was, "Why can't the Washington, DC Metrorail service be just as nice?"

After touching down at Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok International Airport, retrieving our luggage and clearing immigration, we headed for the MTR outlet. We purchased two Airport Express smart card passes, which included three days of unlimited subway use. The Airport Express line was quite impressive. Designed for travelers, it has spacious seating, luggage storage areas and video displays in each car that provide transfer information in multiple languages. In less than 30 minutes, we traveled from the airport to Hong Kong's Central district.

Another very nice MTR feature is the shops and eateries located at each stop. Stores ranging from 7-11 to Giordano (the Chinese equivalent of The Gap stores in the U.S.) are available at the stations. My favorite is a bakery called Maxim. The Mrs. and I enjoyed countless pastries, rolls, mini-cakes and other desserts from Maxim's. And, the other benefit was I didn't gain an ounce. We walked around 2-3 hours a day and that actually helped me lose weight.

On our third day, we went to recharge our 3-day MTR tourist smart cards, and learned a few things. First, the smart cards are valid for 72 hours from initial use. Second, you cannot use the automated machines to recharge the tourist smart cards. They have to be recharged in person with a station attendant. Third, while you can use a credit card to purchase the 3-day smart card, you can only use cash to recharge the cards. And fourth, when you return to the airport, you can return the 3-day smart card to the MTR station manager for a full refund of any unused fare, plus the HK$50.00 deposit. The Mrs. and I ended up getting back about HK$180 (about $30 U.S.) which we managed to spend on more pastries, lunch and trinkets at the airport.

Two things about the MTR I would change is 1) color-code the station signs to help people transferring from one line to another figure out which way to go - the multiple subway lines are already color-coded, putting the color-coding on the station signage is logical; and 2) the subway cars can get packed during rush hour - but then again - if you can't deal with crowds, you shouldn't be visiting big cities.

I'd still love to go back and visit soon!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hong Kong!

The Mrs. and I headed out to Hong Kong for Thanksgiving. It was a fantastic trip. We had a great time! I will post a series of entries highlighting our trip. For this entry, I'll talk about the long journey there.

We decided to leave on Thanksgiving Day because it is easy to get flights, especially international flights on Thanksgiving Day. Most Americans spend the day with family, eating turkey and watching football. Few travel internationally that day. And that makes it a good day to travel abroad.

For the trip, I cashed in 120,000 United Mileage Plus miles for two round-trip tickets. Since I am a Premier Executive member, I get Economy Plus seating which includes 5 extra inches of space. I can also reserve the exit rows - which provide even more space. Having that extra leg room in the exit rows makes a big difference when you fly - especially long distances. Being able to stretch your legs on flights without having to arch your body around people and obstacles is incredibly nice.

We took the 7:00 am flight out of Dulles. It was a 767, which means it included in-seat personal entertainment systems. A series of movies, music channels and GPS tracking/flight information is available. While not as sophisticated as European competitors, the entertainment system is still nice to have. If you have the choice between a 767/777 v. 737/757/321/320 when you fly, pick the 767/777. The wide body plane handles turbulence better and offers more amenities than the smaller planes.

As we approached San Francisco, to transfer to the flight to Hong Kong, we could see how nice the Bay Area looked. It was very sunny, with hardly any clouds. And the temperature was just about right - warm enough to get by with a light jacket and just a bit of crispness in the Fall air. There was a strong pull to spend the weekend in San Francisco before heading to Hong Kong. But Asia beckoned louder and a couple of hours later we hopped aboard a 747 bound for the Orient.

The flight to Hong Kong was relatively uneventful. My biggest surprise was the route, which took us north towards Alaska, then followed the Aleutian Islands across the International Date Line, then southwest towards Japan. I would have guessed a more direct route, across Hawaii and the Philippines would have been faster.

14 hours later, we landed in Hong Kong, cleared customs and headed for our hotel. More in the next installment.