Finance Guidance Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:14:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 5 Ways to Turn Credit Card Rewards Into Real Wealth Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:14:42 +0000 Using a rewards credit card is an easy way to pocket a few hundred dollars a year in cash back rewards, or earn free travel. And if you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll find there are plenty of ways to parlay your points into something more meaningful and long-lasting.

1. Invest your cash back for the long haul

The simplest way to make cash back rewards even more rewarding is to put the money into a retirement account and let compound interest work its magic. For example, we’ve worked out how to save over a thousand dollars a year using credit cards.

Let’s say you banked your $1,000 in rewards and savings and invested them in a Roth IRA each year for 20 years. If you earned an average return of 6 percent, you’d have almost $40,000 after 20 years, before fees.

2. Invest in experiences

Ask any dying person what they value most, and it won’t be money they speak of. Most people look back on their lives and cherish the memories they’ve made — the sight of beautiful places, the laughter of their children, and the life-changing moments they’ve spent with the people they love.

Travel rewards cards may not help anyone grow rich, but they can help them afford a wide range of experiences that may otherwise be out of reach. An Alaskan cruise may fit into even a modest budget with the smart use of credit card rewards. Meanwhile, a $1000+ economy flight to Europe can be had for as little as 45,000 American Airlines frequent flyer miles, which you can earn with an American Airlines credit card.

Used wisely, travel rewards can help families make memories they’ll cherish for a lifetime. At the very least, they make it possible to travel farther, participate in more activities, and stay longer once you’re there. (See also: How to Earn a Free Vacation in 9 Months With Credit Card Rewards)


3. Donate rewards to a worthy cause

Even if you aren’t remotely interested in spending rewards, you can make a difference. Some credit cards give rewards directly to charities. Other credit card programs let you donate your points to charity, letting you turn your regular spending into a boon for someone else.

While each credit card rewards program works differently, most make it possible to donate your rewards to causes you believe in. And if you don’t want to donate through your issuer’s official program, you can always simply give the cash back you earn to your favorite charity.

4. Use rewards to pay down debt and save money on interest

If you have credit card debt, you shouldn’t be chasing credit card rewards. But if you have other debt that you’d like to pay off sooner, like a car loan, you can rack up cash rewards and make an extra payment each year. This will help you reduce interest on that debt as well as pay it off sooner.

5. Avoid a high-interest loan

If you have a huge expense coming up and need to take out a loan, you can avoid interest payments and earn rewards in one fell swoop. With a credit card that offers 0% APR on new purchases you essentially get an interest-free loan for a limited time.

For example, let’s say you plan to finance a roomful of furniture to the tune of $5,000. You want to pay it off over a year or so, and hope to avoid huge interest payments. You can get a card that offers 0% APR for the first 15 months, allowing you to pay off that $5,000 interest free. Remember though that you have to stay committed to your plan to pay off that amount during that period. Rewards cards typically charge higher interest rates. If you don’t think you’ll be able to pay off your balance, you’ll want instead to look into low interest credit cards to keep a handle on your debt. Before you pursue rewards, make sure you’re prepared to use credit responsibly.

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How to Save Frequent Flyer Miles That Are About to Expire Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:13:31 +0000 For many of us, earning enough airline miles for that free trip can take a while. Sometimes using a co-branded airline credit card can help speed things up. But while we’re waiting to collect enough, we might risk losing what we’ve already earned. While each frequent flyer program has its own set of rules, most will erase your miles if you don’t use them or earn new miles for a period of 12–24 months.

Check your airline’s loyalty program to see how long you have before your miles disappear. And if your expiration date is looming, consider one of these strategies.

Join an airline dining program

Since you can “reset the clock” on your frequent flyer miles with even a small purchase, airline dining programs offer an easy way keep your miles alive. While each airline’s program includes different restaurants, and the number of miles you’ll earn will vary, they all work similarly: You sign up for the program, dine at a qualifying restaurant, then earn bonus miles for each dollar you spend. (See related: Best Credit Cards for Dining Out)

Shop through an airline shopping portal

If you don’t want to deal with a complicated dining program or dine at specific restaurants, using a rewards shopping portal is another easy way to save your miles. Nearly all major airlines offer an online mall or portal that lets you earn extra bonus miles for each dollar you spend with e-tailers you access through the site. You simply go to the portal, search for the store you want to shop with, and then “click through” the airline portal to the retailer’s site to make your purchase. And remember, any purchase will reset the clock on your airline account. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars. A simple $5 online purchase (or less!) will do the trick.

Cash in miles for a gift card

While earning more miles can keep your stash of airline currency alive, so can redeeming miles. If you don’t have any travel planned or are saving up for a big trip, consider cashing in a small number of airline miles for a gift card. Only certain programs offer this option, and you may also need the program’s co-branded credit card to be eligible.


While you usually won’t get as much bang for your miles by buying a gift card as you would redeeming them for flights, this can still be an effective strategy for keeping your account active.

Donate miles to charity

Various programs let you donate miles to causes you believe in. Check with your frequent flyer program to see if donating your points is an option and which charities are available. If you aren’t going to be able to use your miles, anyway, this is a good way to use them rather than letting them expire.

Buy miles

If none of the other options seem appealing for your situation, there’s a final solution to consider: buying miles. By buying miles, you can keep your current stash of airline miles alive.

Unfortunately, it is seldom cost efficient to fork over real cash for airline miles. Then again, it could be well worth spending a small amount to keep a large stash of miles alive if you have no other option.

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What to Do After Losing Your Social Security Card Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:11:56 +0000 You lost your Social Security card. Any time personal information goes missing, it can be unnerving. How big of a problem is this, exactly?

The card itself is not much of one. Replacing a lost Social Security card is free and relatively simple. The bigger worry is what happens if your Social Security number falls into the wrong hands, and criminals use it to steal your identity. Then, you have a problem.

You can reduce the odds of trouble by acting quickly. Follow this fast plan if you’ve lost your Social Security card.

Protecting your identity

To understand whether someone has stolen your Social Security number, keep a close watch on your credit reports. Thieves could use your Social Security number to apply for new credit cards in your name, racking up debt without you even realizing. This could send your credit score tumbling. You might also start receiving calls from angry creditors wondering why you haven’t paid your bills.

The best way to determine if someone is illegally using your Social Security number is to order copies of your credit reports from You are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three national credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — each year. Once you have your reports, study them carefully. Look for new lines of credit taken out in your name that you know you never applied for.

If you do suspect someone is using your Social Security number illegally, visit, a website run by the Federal Trade Commission, to report the theft. You can also file an online complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

It’s important to also report the theft to either EquifaxExperian, or TransUnion. The credit bureau will place a fraud alert on your credit report, and will also notify the other two bureaus so that they will do the same.

Next, contact the IRS. This will keep identity thieves from filing a tax return in your name and then collecting a refund that is owed to you.


A simple fix if there’s no evidence of identity theft

If you want a new Social Security card, you may be able to apply for a replacement on the Social Security Administration’s website. Replacements are free. First, you’ll need to create a mySocialSecurity account. You must be a U.S. citizen who is 18 or older with a U.S. mailing address. You must also have a driver’s license or state-issued ID from one of the following 18 places: Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin.

If you don’t meet the criteria for an online application, you can submit an application for a replacement card in person or by mail to your local Social Security office. You’ll need to provide your U.S. driver’s license, state-issued nondriver identification card, or U.S. passport.

You can apply for a maximum of three new Social Security cards a year, and a maximum of 10 during your lifetime.

What if you’re a victim of identity theft?

If you have evidence that someone else is using your Social Security number, you can request a new Social Security number from the Social Security Administration. Just be sure you can actually prove that someone is using your number and that this use is harming you. If you can’t provide evidence of this, you won’t be given a new Social Security number.

For example, your evidence could be a credit report listing several credit cards that you’ve never applied for. Or, evidence could be a letter from the IRS informing you that your income tax filings were rejected because someone else already filed them.

If you suspect someone is using your number, call the Social Security Administration fraud hotline at 1-800-269-0271.

To prevent your Social Security number from falling into the wrong hands, don’t carry your card with you. There is absolutely no reason to keep your Social Security card in your wallet. Instead, keep it in a safe-deposit box, at home, or in another secure location

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6 Things You’ll Encounter When Taking Over a Loved One’s Finances Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:11:22 +0000 Your parents took care of you for much of your life. It’s not a comfortable moment when you realize that they need you to help care for them.

Ideally, when it’s time to take the financial wheel for aging parents or other loved ones, you’ve already done some advanced planning. If not, the process may be more onerous. Here’s what you need to know.

1. It’s relatively easy if the person’s assets are in a revocable trust

A decade ago, I received a letter from an elderly cousin informing me that she’d met with a lawyer to set up a revocable living trust, and that she wanted to name me the successor trustee. At the time, this was mumbo jumbo to me. But a couple of years ago, when my relative’s health robbed her of the ability to conduct her own affairs, I was very grateful for her foresight.

Because my name was already on her accounts as successor trustee, it was relatively easy to have the banks promote me to “trustee,” which gave me the legal power to manage nearly all her finances. All I needed to do was to provide the banks with a copy of the trust and a signed statement of incapacitation from her physician. Then I was able to set up online banking with my own passwords, giving me the power to pay her bills, deposit her checks, and renew her certificates of deposit as needed.

Having this trust also made settling her estate easier when my relative eventually passed away.

2. A financial power of attorney is helpful, too

Having your assets transferred to a trust is a long process. In most cases, a durable financial power of attorney is almost as helpful, and creating one is much quicker and easier. The person who may need your future help simply fills out a few pages of paperwork and signs it in front of a notary. Their bank may have the necessary forms on hand.

This power may be set up to kick in only if the account holder has become incapacitated, or can be for anytime use; for example, if your mother wants you to handle finances for her while she travels overseas once a year. It gives you the power to sign checks and tax returns, collect and deposit Social Security checks, sell real estate — pretty much everything. The main difference between the revocable trust and the power of attorney, in my experience, is that a power of attorney ends when the person dies, while a revocable trust continues after death.

Even if you already have a revocable living trust, it’s good to also get a financial power of attorney, for several reasons. First, not everyone recognizes a living trust, but pretty much every bank employee is familiar with a POA. Second, your loved one may have forgotten to put some assets into a living trust, in which case the POA can be a backup means for you to handle those assets. Third, there are a few powers, like signing tax returns, that trustees don’t have.

3. It can be hard to talk to Social Security on their behalf

Once I took over my relative’s finances, I noticed that her Social Security payments seemed low for the number of years she had worked. I wanted to talk with the Social Security Administration about whether she was getting everything she was due, so I took my POA and trust documents to a local service center, took a number, and waited for my turn at the window.

No dice. The staff there informed me that the SSA doesn’t recognize POAs, and that the only way I’d be able to get any information about her account was to apply to have them appoint me as a representative payee. Representative payees are given the authority to receive the Social Security payments belonging to a relative, friend, or other loved one, and use the money on the beneficiary’s behalf.

Upon further examination, I decided my relative probably would not qualify for any further Social Security payments, so I didn’t go through this rigmarole. If you need to manage a loved one’s Social Security benefits, however, be aware that you’ll need to apply for this designation.

4. If you need to sell investments, you may have some digging to do

If you sell stock on behalf of your loved one, that person may owe capital gains taxes. Figuring out how much they owe can be a real challenge if they’ve held the asset for many decades. My relative held some stocks in online brokerage accounts, which sounded like they would be easy to manage. Soon I realized that she’d transferred these stocks to the brokerage after holding them for years as stock certificates.

Some of the companies had gone through mergers and takeovers since she’d first invested. She probably had the paperwork showing when they’d originally been purchased somewhere — but her home contained many, many boxes of papers and I didn’t know where to find the stock purchase records.

If your loved one is expected to live a long time and will need investments to be liquidated, you’ll have to do the legwork to get at least your best estimate as to when stocks were purchased and at what price. But if the account owner is not likely to need those assets in their lifetime, I learned from a financial adviser it may be wise to just leave them be. Why? Because cost basis — the cost at which the IRS views you to have acquired the asset — is reset at death. If your loved one passes away, those stocks can be liquidated without worrying about what they originally cost.


5. You must prepare carefully for financing nursing home care

Before I began helping my loved one with her finances, I lived in a fantasy land where Medicaid or Medicare would pay for all U.S. citizens’ nursing home care if needed. A meeting with an elder lawyer set me straight.

Medicaid will indeed pay for nursing home expenses — but only after nearly every other asset belonging to your loved one is gone. Once admitted to a nursing home, unless they purchased long-term care insurance, they’ll be expected to pay market rates, which can be $3,600 to $7,600 a month or more. Once their money and assets run out, then Medicaid takes over.

There are ways to shield some assets from going to the nursing home, and it’s wise for you and/or your loved one to consult a lawyer who specializes in Title XIX planning in your state. One surprising rule in most states is that the person needing care can’t simply give all their money away and expect Medicaid to pay for the nursing home. In fact, if your mother gives you $10,000 a few years before going into a nursing home, and then runs out of money, you can actually be compelled to give back that $10,000 gift — and if you’ve already spent it, well, now you’re $10,000 in debt.

Only a qualified attorney can walk you through all the rules for your state, but in general, what I learned was that it’s important to start keeping records. Track money spent and gifts given as early as possible to prevent the system from trying to take back money already given away or spent. (See also: A Simple Guide to Planning For a Loved One’s Long-Term Care)

6. Check recent statements carefully

Elderly or ailing people can be victimized by everything from outright scams to petty fees that they shouldn’t have to pay. Once you have access to your loved one’s accounts, look over the past year’s worth of financial statements. When I did this, I found that my relative had been unwittingly signed up for some membership programs she never used, and was still being billed for a phone line that had been disconnected months before. I was able to get all these charges reversed with some persistent phone calls. On the same tack, be alert for any signs that your loved one has been the victim of identity theft or other fraud.

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5 Ways to Save on Your Next Glamping Trip Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:09:24 +0000 Camping allows you to immerse yourself in nature. But some of us are attached to some of our everyday luxuries. Enter glamping, or glamorous camping.

With glamping, you can choose to stay in heated tents, decked-out yurts, secluded tree houses, fully-equipped retro trailers, or deluxe cabins. And you never have to sacrifice your comfort for a weekend in the woods. The problem is, glamping can be as expensive as staying in a boutique hotel. For instance, a luxury cabin near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming starts at more than $250 a night.

But you don’t have to break your budget. The premium pricing on glamping accommodations are based on location, views, and party size, sure, but you’re also paying for amenities. So if you have the choice between a bare-bones cabin for a reasonable price and one with a higher rate that provides linens, towels, and air conditioning, for example, go for the minimalist option. Bring your own fresh linens and towels, and a fan to keep you cool.

Here are some other ways you can save money on your next glamping trip, without feeling like you’re sacrificing anything.

1. Hunt for deals

Visit daily deal sites and blogs like Glamping Hub for glamping deals and discount accommodations. If you have a AAA, Sam’s Club, or a Costco membership, you may be eligible for additional discounts for lodging and food in the area.

2. Get the timing right

If the destination charges an entrance fee, see if there are any times with reduced or waived fees. For example, the National Park Service offers a few days with free admission every year. If you frequently take glamping trips, you might consider the Park Service’s annual pass, which offers unlimited access to all your favorite camping spots, any time of year.

During peak times like Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day, however, everything from the cost of the campsite to the cost of fuel will go up. Check the prices of your chosen campsite to figure out when it’s cheapest to go.


3. Skip the package deals

All-inclusive glamping packages can be convenient, but they are usually very expensive. Some packages include on-site dining rooms with exquisite meals, yoga studios, saunas, and planned activities for guests. Instead, save money by planning the trip and making food and additional activity arrangements yourself.

4. Compare prices with public campsites

You can find private campgrounds and campsites available for glampers who want luxurious accommodations through Kampgrounds of America (KOA). You search by destination first, and select how you’d like to glamp: cabin, RV site, tents, or “unique lodging” which includes airstreams, yurts, or restored train cabooses. Many RV parks also offer “glampsites” with shared facilities and various amenities. You might be able to save a few dollars by booking a public glampsite at a national park, but some of these facilities are privately owned, so you’ll need to see where you can get the most for your money.

Some locations rent out cabins, motor homes, and other affordable accommodations at around $100 or less per night. They are also equipped with bathrooms and a kitchen, so you can have the accommodations you want without breaking the budget. (See also: Camping for a Week Is Only $160 at These National Parks)

5. Bring items you already own

Bring comfortable pillows, blankets, lanterns, tiki torches, a cooler, a portable grill, and any other creature comforts from home to deck out your space, rather than paying extra for a cabin or heated tent with these same perks. You’ll also want to buy firewood and bring it with you as it will be more affordable than paying for it at the campsite.

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5 Refreshing Ways to Keep Cool On-the-Go Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:08:00 +0000 It’s getting hotter. So how do you prevent sweat and general heat discomfort when you’re commuting to work or out and about? It’s easy to keep cool at home or once you’ve arrived at the office, but it’s harder when you’re on the road. Luckily, we’ve found some easy ways to cool off when you’re on the go.

1. Remember a time when you were given the cold shoulder

Social exclusion feel may feel cold — literally. Researchers conducting a psychological experiment involving 65 students at the University of Toronto found that subjects who recalled a time when they were socially excluded estimated the room temperature was colder than subjects who were asked to recall a social incident when they felt included. People who called to mind a memory of social exclusion were also more likely to crave warm food or drink than people who thought about an inclusive experience, according to the research. So if you’re feeling uncomfortably warm, it may help to conjure up a memory from a time when you felt rejected and shunned. Instant air conditioning!

2. Wear a cooling face mask

Scientists have found that the temperature of your face influences your perceived whole-body temperature and overall comfort level. In fact, cooling the face is two to five times more powerful in suppressing sweat and reducing heat discomfort when compared to cooling any other body part, according to research performed at Australia’s University of Wollongong. So when you slip on a cooling face mask that’s been soaked in cold water, you’re essentially telling your body to turn on the AC. For those who like to kill two birds with one stone, additional benefits of wearing a cooling face mask include sun protection and a defense against dust, debris, and wind.

3. Keep a misting fan on you

When you need to feel fast relief, there’s nothing quite like a personal misting device. A hand-held fan — especially if it’s capable of giving you a light spritz of ice water — is a simple, inexpensive way of keeping cool when you’re on the run. Another option is one of these tiny, portable fansthat attach to your smartphone.

4. Don a cooling wristband, hat, or towel

Columbia has created a clothing line called Omni-Freeze Zero that’s made of hyper-evaporative textiles that retain water while remaining dry to the touch. Here’s how it works: When these cooling clothes and accessories become saturated with water or sweat, the absorbed moisture reacts with a specially designed polymer contained in visible rings in the fabric to create a cooling effect for the wearer. The sweatier you are, the more cooling your gear becomes. (See also: 7 Ways to Sweat Less This Summer)

5. Opt for a water bottle with double walls

A water bottle with double-walled insulation is your best bet for staying refreshed while on the fly. The popular S’well bottle brand promises your drink will stay chilled for 24 hours (or hot for 12), and there are many other brands on the market that offer that same promise. Keep your bottle filled with chilled water, and you’ll be refreshed and hydrated all day long.

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Technology Hacks for the International Traveler Fri, 20 Oct 2017 11:19:34 +0000 When traveling around the world, knowing how to use technology in the right way can save you time, money, and headaches while you are on the road. We’ve compiled a list of a few of the best hacks that allow you to use your smartphone and other devices easily when you’re on your next trip.

Unlock your phone

Your phone is likely one of the most important tools that you use while you are at home. You may rely on it daily for communication, navigation, social media, and personal banking, among other things.

Using your regular cellphone plan abroad, however, can be pricey. Verizon, for example, charges $10 a day for you to use your plan outside of North America — meaning if you use it every day for a month, you could end up with a $300 bill.

You can lower your costs significantly by using a cellular service provider in your destination country. For example, when I was living in France, a month of unlimited data and calling with Free Mobile cost just $20.

To use a foreign carrier, you’ll need to have your phone unlocked. Having an unlocked phone simply means that you can change your SIM card and get service from different carriers, as opposed to being stuck with one service provider that is locked to the phone.

To unlock an existing phone, the first step is to ask your cellular service provider if it will unlock the phone for you. Most will, but you usually have to meet certain requirements, such as completing a two-year service plan if you signed up for one.

Alternatively, if you travel a lot, the next time you’re planning to buy a phone, you can buy one that is already unlocked. Unlocked Android phones can be purchased from Best Buy, and you can get unlocked iPhones from an Apple Store.

If you already have a locked phone and your provider will not do unlock it for you, you can use one of the many shops that offer this type of service. In my experience, the price runs anywhere from $10 to $145, depending on the shop, the phone, and the carrier the phone is locked to. If you’re going abroad, you can have it unlocked in your destination country, where it may be less expensive. For example, I found unlocking a phone in Mexico to be cheaper than doing it in the United States.

Buy a SIM card for cheap global coverage

Now that you have an unlocked phone, you’ll need to purchase service by buying a SIM card at your destination. A SIM card is a small “smartcard” containing a chip that stores your mobile phone number, address book, and information on your cellular carrier and billing. You insert the SIM in your phone to get service from a certain provider.

This means buying a SIM from, for example, France’s Free Mobile will enable you to then buy coverage from them. You can usually buy a month’s worth of service or prepay for minutes. You will get a new phone number and you can choose a plan depending on the quantity of data, calls, and messages you plan to use while abroad.

A good data plan means that if you need to use the internet, you will no longer be reliant on a strong Wi-Fi connection. These plans are often just as fast as international phone plans offered by U.S. carriers — and they’re often cheaper, too. In Argentina for example, Claro offers 50MB per day of data for one week for just 40 Argentinian pesos ($2.51 at the time of writing).

Talk time is similarly inexpensive in many countries. When I was in Colombia, Claro offered 60 minutes of local talk time for 2,900 pesos, which equates to just 93 cents.


Tether with a personal hotspot

Once you’ve gotten your phone connected and you’re able to take advantage of cheap data packages abroad, you can get your computer connected as well. You do this by “tethering” the computer to your phone’s data connection via the phone’s “hotspot.” Whether you need to work or you just want to upload some pictures of your trip, this can be a very useful trick for travelers.

To get your connection going, you’ll want to turn on your personal hotspot on your phone, which you’ll find in your general settings, often in the same menu where your Wi-Fi connection is listed. From there, you’ll turn the hotspot on so that it is searchable and viewable on other devices, in this case your computer. Some phones may have already created a password for you, or if it asks you to create one, make sure to select a strong password so others nearby you can’t just jump onto your hotspot and use your data plan.

Open your computer, click on your Wi-Fi connection, and you should see your phone appear as one of the hotspots. Enter the password and then you’ll be able to surf the web from your computer, using the signal from your phone.

You can also use your personal hotspot to give Wi-Fi access to a friend or travel partner if they don’t happen to have a connection. They’ll select your phone’s hotspot from their list of Wi-Fi networks and enter the password.

Get secure access with a VPN

VPN stands for a virtual private network. I was introduced to VPNs when traveling recently to China. Using a VPN, I was able to access websites such as Facebook and Instagram, which the Chinese government blocks, as well as Netflix, which limits access to U.S. accounts in some countries.

A VPN encrypts and reroutes your connection to the VPN provider’s servers. It allows you to hide your IP address and your location; websites you’re trying to access see the IP address and location of the VPN provider instead of your actual information. This helps when you’re trying to access sites that geo-block access, such as Netflix.

In addition, your local internet service provider won’t be able to see which websites you’re connecting to. It will only see that you’re connecting to a VPN. That means you’re more likely to get past government censors in the country where you’re staying.

Some VPNs are free, but they come with limited bandwidth. You’re usually better off purchasing access for $5–$15 a month.

Use map apps offline

Google Maps is the king of smartphone navigation apps, and you can even use it when you don’t have a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. It takes a little advance planning, as you’ll need to open the map of the place you’re going — say, Paris — while you’re online. Once you’ve got the Paris map pulled up, type “OK Maps” into the search bar. You can then save the map for use when you’re offline. The Google Maps app will even give you driving directions within the saved area when you’re offline, though you can’t get walking or transit directions.

Other apps such as let you download maps for a whole country. also has a navigation feature that is entirely accessible offline once you’ve downloaded the map of your choice.

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How to Make Your Pet an Official Emotional Support Animal Wed, 18 Oct 2017 12:56:08 +0000 As a pet parent, I understand the emotional benefits of having a loving four-legged friend by my side. My dog, Diamond, is one of the biggest calming forces in my life. Her mellow demeanor allows me to take her to dog-friendly restaurants, on pet-sitting gigs, and more. I had always considered making her an emotional support animal (or ESA), but knowing I didn’t have a medical reason to do so kept me from taking the plunge.

However, when I was diagnosed with an iron-overload disorder called Hereditary Hemochromatosis and learned I would have to deal with needles — my greatest fear — on a frequent basis, I decided to take the steps to make Diamond an ESA so I could have her with me at my doctor’s office.

If you are thinking about making your pet an ESA, here’s what I learned when I went through the process.

The difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal

The first thing to note is that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ESAs are not considered service animals. While service animals are allowed everywhere, ESAs have limitations on where they can go. This is because service animals are specially trained to assist a person with a diagnosed physical or mental disability, whereas ESAs are not.

Where you can take an ESA

Based on federal regulations, there are only two places your ESA is allowed:

A home you’d like to rent

Under the Fair Housing Act, all landlords must make “reasonable accommodation” to permit dogs that are ESAs.

When you fly

Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are required to provide accommodation to passengers traveling with an ESA, upon review of required ESA documents.

You can also check with your state or local government to find out their rules on allowing ESAs in public places. I did find that many doctor’s offices and medical facilities in my area allow patients to bring their ESA with them to appointments, tests, and treatments. Just call and make sure before you bring them along. (See also: 5 Surprising Ways Your Dog Can Save You Money)

Are you a candidate?

If you are dealing with high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression, and your pet helps alleviate these issues, you may be a candidate for an ESA. If you plan on taking your pet on planes or to medical facilities, make sure your pet is obedient and calm enough to be in those environments.


How to prove your pet is an ESA

Many websites sell vests, certificates, or other identification tags stating that your pet is an ESA. While having your pet wear an ESA vest can make them more easily identifiable (I have Diamond wear one for this purpose), these items don’t actually prove ESA status. The only thing you must have to verify your pet is an ESA is a letter from a licensed mental health professional dated within the last year on their letterhead stating:

  • That you are under their treatment
  • Your mental illness or disability
  • The name of your pet
  • How your pet medically alleviates your symptoms

Avoid fake document sellers

There are countless websites willing to send you a letter from a “mental health professional” for a fee. These sites make it easy to get a letter classifying your pet as an ESA. However, these letters are fake. In order for the letter to be valid, the mental health professional who writes the letter has to actually be treating you.

If you need an ESA to help you feel calm, safe, or to assist with your sense of well-being, being under the treatment of a licensed mental health professional can be beneficial in helping you overcome the difficulties you are facing.

How the process works

Go online to find a few mental health professionals you think would be a good fit for you. Email or call them to explain your situation, why you think having an ESA would benefit you, and ask if they support the use of ESAs in therapy.

Once you determine which therapist is right for you, schedule a session to start working through your anxiety, depression, or stress, and have your therapist write you an ESA letter.

Learn from my mistakes

My experience didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped. I contacted a few mental health professionals within my insurance network to see if they supported the use of ESAs, with no luck. Realizing I might have to use a website in order to get the letter (albeit fake) I needed in time for my first treatment, I put out a desperate plea on Nextdoor asking for recommendations for therapists who were advocates of using ESAs. Luckily, I was able to find someone with a couple days to spare before my first treatment.

The lesson here is don’t get discouraged if you are having trouble finding the right therapist. There are therapists out there that believe in the calming and healing power of pets!

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