Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: January 2013 (page 1 of 2)

On the art of travel spending

I am in an epically bad mood this morning, owing mostly to the ineptitude of both KLM (the airline) and Chase (the bank). I have spent hours on the phone with both this week over what boils down to the same issue: The fact that the American banking system is light years behind the European one.

The backstory

In short: European banks have switched to EMV chip technology (that is, “chip + pin” or “chip + signature”), and American banks haven’t. In the Netherlands, this technology is so widespread that you can now find stores in Amsterdam that only take chip + pin – no cash, no magnetic strip, nothing. In Haarlem, a smaller Dutch town about 20 minutes away by train, most shopkeepers (including large chains) have banned customers from using magnetic strip cards.

My first reaction to this was annoyance at the Dutch for compromising their own tourism industry, but after a bit more processing, I began to become angry at American banks for not just getting their shit together. Speculation as to why they haven’t varies, but some pundits seem to think that it’s a matter of not wanting to confuse Americans. Well, for fuck’s sake.

In any case, with all of my frequent travel to the Netherlands, it has become imperative for me to get my hands on a chip card. Travelex offers a pre-paid one, but as I’ve never been much good with careful budgeting, I knew I needed a more permanent option. And so the research began.

As it turns out, a quick Google told me that Chase, my bank of choice (not because I actually like them, mind you, but because they’re locationally convenient and have a partnership with United, my airline of choice but not preference) offers EMV chip cards. Hoorah! So on Monday, I called them and after nearly an hour of an older customer service rep fumbling around and thinking aloud, I managed to talk to a “senior” rep, who offered two choices: Either upgrade to a bank account I can’t afford, or for free(!), accept a Disney-themed card. Begrudgingly (and while giggling), I took the latter.

Thinking I was all set, I began to deal with the KLM issue, which is: When you book a KLM flight online, the website defaults to the country that you’re in, and only offers you flights originating in that country. That is, in order to book a flight originating in Amsterdam from the US, you have to switch to the Netherlands country page (which, thankfully, is at least offered in English as well). So I did, and was able to book my flight to Geneva just fine…until I got to the payment page, where I discovered that my choices were to pay by bank transfer or iDEAL (a Dutch payment system) for free, or with a credit card for a fee of 7,50 EUR. Since Chase charges me for international bank transfers, I took the credit card option. I then complained loudly to @KLM on Twitter who, to their credit, responded with an attempted explanation. But ultimately they (implicitly) agreed with my conclusion: Their system privileges Dutch customers.

7,50 euros poorer, I came to work today expecting my Disney card + chip in the mail. And lo, the package had arrived…but when I opened it, I was loathe to discover that the card did not, in fact, have a chip. So I called Chase: As it turns out, I got banksplained*. Even though I said the word “EMV chip” about a hundred times, the “senior” customer service agent interpreted it as some other technology, which the Disney card supposedly has. So back to the phone with Chase, where I was told by another “senior” customer service agent that the only Chase card with a chip is in fact a credit card. Well okay then – on to the next rep, who (after attempting to send me to several nonexistent URLs and acting sheepish about it) tells me the only one offered is the JP Morgan Palladium card…which comes with a $595 fee. Ugh! So I do a little of my own research, only to find that Chase offers several reasonably-priced credit cards with a chip. Marriott Rewards card (with no foreign transaction fees, thankfully) it is.

The art of travel spending

Problems solved, right? And yet, I’m feeling incredibly annoyed, and duped, and somewhat shocked at the ineptitude of Chase’s agents. So, I’m going to attempt to reframe this, and offer a few lessons on the art of international travel spending (or rather, saving). Here goes:

  • You need a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.  And if you’re traveling mostly to Western Europe, you might as well make that a card with a chip + no foreign transaction fees.  NerdWallet has a list of all of the chip cards available, but the best one I was able to find was, in fact, the Marriott Rewards card with chip: $85 annual fee (waived for the first year), no foreign fees, plus Marriott rewards.  
  • Better yet, of course, is a good card with airline rewards.  I go with the United Club card, which has an insanely high annual fee ($395) that I argued to get waived for the first year (which is not as hard as you’d think), but is worth it in the end because of the lack of foreign transaction fees and the 1.5 miles per dollar (not to mention all the free airport lounge drinking).  If you are actually loyal to an airline as I am, then the math is worth doing.
  • And of course, your mileage program itself is a money-saver.  I flew to Rio de Janeiro and Stockholm from SFO, round trip, last year on miles alone.  It is absolutely worth signing up for every single mileage program out there (though not typically worth doubling up within an alliance – i.e., don’t do both United and Lufthansa, as both are Star Alliance).  Also, within Star Alliance, note that Aegean’s program gets you to Star Alliance Gold faster than any other airline’s.  You’re welcome.
  • Think about exchanging your money beforehand at your bank.  I never used to do this, but after my most recent trip to the Netherlands (in which I removed 250 euros—the max daily limit—three times, incurring excessive fees on both ends), I’m reconsidering.  If you withdraw cash at your own bank, then exchange at your own bank (with no extra fees incurred), you do actually save money.  Of course, if you lose cash, you’re fucked, so be cautious with this one and only do it if you know you’ll need actual paper money (which I knew I would).
  • Don’t use your US phone abroad!  David Sasaki has some great tips here, and this is what I do: I have an unlocked Samsung Galaxy Nexus that I use with T-Mobile when I’m in the States.  When I’m abroad, I either buy a local SIM card and flip it as soon as I get off the plane, OR I use a generic, refillable European SIM (you can buy these at numerous sites, this is the one I have).  Sometimes you will save money, sometimes you will not, but you will never be surprised by a bill reaching into the thousands of dollars.

That’s all I’ve got for now.  Any additional tips?  Do share them below!

On blogging and busy lives

I just redesigned my blog yesterday.  It was a sunny Sunday morning, and after sneaking around the house quietly for an hour or two so as not to awaken anyone, I slipped out, rode my bicycle to the office, and after several hours of productivity, decided to do something fun.  Let me know what you think of it.

This blog has been with me since February 2008, nearly five years ago. And quite appropriate, really: I started it just before I started my job at the Berkman Center.  I was at the WeMedia conference with a group from Global Voices—the first time I’d met anyone from the network—and having a conversation with Solana Larsen in the backyard of our Miami rental about my desire to turn my hobbies into a job.  Shortly after, she connected me with Ethan Zuckerman, who offered to pass my CV around…and did, later connecting me to my future employers at the Berkman Center. (I am obviously, infinitely grateful to both of them.)

It was only yesterday, in redoing my blog, that I realized how much had happened in five years.

This week, I was able to help someone the way Solana and Ethan helped me.  And requests like that come by me every so often, and I always try my best.

Today, writing this, I looked back for those emails, and was reminded that, after thanking Solana for sending off that message so quickly, she emailed back to say: “If I don’t do it straight away it’s less likely to ever happen.”

A nice reminder for busy lives.










On THNKing and Reflecting

Sometimes it takes a strong period of reflection to realize you’re learning something.  That sounds obvious, but I (we, perhaps?) spend so much of my days in rapidfire communication, flitting between e-mail(s), Twitter, blog(s), from account to account, from work to personal, until it all blends together. When you’ve lived your life that way for a long time, reflection becomes something for which you have to carve out time, carefully, thoughtfully.  It’s something I do in strange but solitary moments, often on airplanes and other dark places.

THNK (which I wrote a little bit about back in September), on the other hand, is days upon days of reflection.  It’s starting your day, sometimes exhausted both mentally and physically, and trudging in from the snow, and immediately smiling because someone shouts an inside joke at you or gives you a hug.  It’s talking with some of the world’s greatest young minds over vegetarian panda* soup and vegetarian tuna sandwiches.  It’s getting to sit at a table with a Dutch princess or a former Costa Rican president or a preeminent sci-fi writer.  It’s simultaneously loving and hating your project team member, then coming up a series of ridiculous ideas that, often suddenly, morph into something amazing.  It’s genuinely feeling a sense of longing for that group of new friends after you’ve left THNK HQ and Amsterdam behind for “real life.”

For me, these moments of realization come as sudden insights, amidst momentary periods of reflection: a short walk to the Espressofabriek after an intense team session, a short five minute “journaling” (or for me, bullet-point-making) session.  Sometimes, like me, they’re hyperverbal: I run through my thoughts aloud with someone, only to find, amidst them, what I didn’t know I was looking for.

And that’s the thing about reflection.  It doesn’t quite matter how you do it, everyone has their own approach.  It’s the outcome of looking inside yourself and realizing what it is you’ve been missing.  And what THNK does, for me, is enable that: through the people we’re put together with, the tools we’re given, the coaching we’re offered.

There is so much more to say, certainly, but that will require a deeper period of reflection ;)



* i mean, if you’re going to make fake meat, why not go all out?


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