How to save money flying to Canada if you’re renting a car

If you’re flying to Canada from the United States, chances are, you’ll probably be visiting (or at least starting your journey in) one of its larger cities: Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver. Then, you might rent a car for your trip. Only problem is, it’s much more expensive to fly to Canada and rent a car in Canada. Additionally, it’s a lot more annoying to take an international flight where you have to go through customs and immigration. This is no fun and you could literally be saving hundreds of dollars if you take a slightly different approach: fly to the closest U.S. city on the border and drive to Canada.

Why does it save money to do this?

This has to do with Canada’s higher cost of living. In general, Canadian stuff costs more than if you get it in the United States. This is true for things like gasoline, airfares, and rental cars, which are going to be among the primary costs of your trip. Considering Toronto and Vancouver are both close to other large American airports, it’s perfectly feasible to fly to a U.S. city to take advantage of American pricing for airfares, rental cars, and gasoline.

Why are Canadian plane tickets more expensive? Without getting into the details, Canada shifts more of the financial responsibility of aviation to the passengers themselves, whereas the U.S. ends up being able to shift some of these costs away from a passenger’s ticket itself.

Do I really save money on plane tickets?

On average, yes, but this is not guaranteed.

On average, plane tickets between the U.S. and Canada are more expensive than between most U.S. cities and the U.S. border cities. In practice, it depends on when you’re going.

If we were to fly between Dallas–Fort Worth and Toronto Pearson nonstop, the cheapest plane ticket would be $744.

Nonstop between DFW and YYZ.

The same itinerary to Buffalo instead is slightly less. While this is pretty high (and I’ve gotten a lower price than this in the summer), it’s still less than the comparable nonstop flight to Toronto on the same dates.

Nonstop isn’t necessary cheap, but it’s cheaper than flying to Toronto Pearson.

If we relax the requirement to fly nonstop, we get much more economical tickets on Frontier, starting at only $241 round trip. If we opt for a legacy carrier, the cheapest is Delta at $410.

These prices look much better.

The same itinerary doesn’t look as good price-wise when you fly to Toronto instead. On the legacy carriers, the price is about the same as flying to Buffalo. But it simply can’t beat Frontier’s $241 price.

DFW to Toronto flights, without the requirement for it to be a nonstop flight. (The Air Canada flight that goes for $567 round trip says it’s nonstop, but that’s just for the departing segment. For the return segment, you’d have to pick a connecting flight to stay at that $567 price point.)

While the savings are not that big, you can tell that on average, it’s still cheaper to fly domestically than it is to fly to Canada. This being said, the difference can at times be negligible, so the savings do not really mean much for flights at all times.

If you are not renting a car, then the only reasonable option is to fly to the city directly, unless the price difference is over the price of a rental. That would have to mean that a flight to Canada costs several hundreds more than a flight to the nearby U.S. border city.

Do I really save money on rental cars?

Yes. To give you a concrete example, I’ll show you the cost of renting the two cheapest car types from Avis between October 5 and October 12, 2022 (one week) from two locations: Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) and Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ).

To rent the cheapest car from Buffalo Airport, it’s US$224.39 if you prepay.

The cheapest you can get at Buffalo Niagara International Airport starts at only US$224.

Meanwhile, you have to pay a whopping CA$629.10 for the cheapest car at Toronto Pearson. Although one Canadian dollar is usually worth less than one U.S. dollar, the exchange rate is still not enough to make US$200 be equivalent to CA$600.

At the exchange rate of 1 USD = 1.28322 CAD, CA$629.10 is equivalent to US$490.25, which is more than double US$224.39. If the exchange rate were to shoot back up to 1 USD = 1.15 CAD, then it would be US$547, which is even more expensive. (One U.S. dollar would have to be equivalent to CA$2.80 for these two prices to be equivalent, and that’s never happened in history before.)

The cheapest you can get at Toronto Pearson International Airport starts at CA$629.10, which is US$490.25 at the time of publication. This is assuming 1 USD = 1.28322 CAD. The price difference only gets worse if the Canadian dollar were stronger.

Even if you insist on a fair comparison between two intermediate-sized cars, Buffalo still comes out wildly on top, at just US$233.74.

US$233.74 is still much less than US$490.25 (= CA$629.10)

As you can see, just by renting your car in the U.S. instead of Canada, you can save $400 right off the bat.

While the savings you get from flying to Buffalo might not be too significant, they are very noticeable for rental cars.

Any other benefits of flying domestically, renting domestically, and driving to Canada?

The other big change is how your border crossing experience will be. Rather than clearing immigration and customs at the airport, you clear it at a land crossing. It’s important to note that it’s not necessarily time-saving to cross at a land crossing; it can take more time than airport immigration if it gets busy. However, you won’t have to wait for immigration right after your flight, and you won’t need to get to the Canadian airport early for U.S. CBP preclearance when you return to the U.S. Plus, if you cross by car, you can always time your border crossing to be done at a less busy time, and in the meantime, you can hang out on the other side of the border. At the airport, you must wait in line to cross immigration before you can leave the airport. For some people, breaking apart the immigration and customs clearance part of their trip from the rest of the air travel part makes a world of a difference.

How to do this for Toronto?

To take advantage of cheaper flights and rental cars, you’ll want to fly to Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) instead of Toronto Pearson or Toronto Bishop. It’s a few miles out of Buffalo and just 15 minutes away from the Canadian border. It is 30 minutes away from Niagara Falls and 2 hours from downtown Toronto (excluding border crossing times).

The rental car agencies know that lots of people will be taking their cars across the border, so you won’t need to ask for anything special to be added to your car in order to drive across the border.

Gasoline

For a Toyota Camry, you’ll be able to drive between Buffalo and Toronto round-trip on less than one tank of gas. This lets you save money on gas, since you can take advantage of the lower prices in New York State than the much higher prices in Ontario. If at all possible, try your best to fuel up in Buffalo or the American side of Niagara Falls instead of during your drive in Ontario to Toronto. Worst case, if you still need some gas to make it back from Toronto to Buffalo, pump a third of a tank, and then fill it all the way back up in Buffalo before you return your rental car.

Crossing the border

Assuming you don’t have NEXUS, you can cross the border at three bridges, listed from south to north:

  • Peace Bridge (Buffalo, NY–Fort Erie, ON)
  • Rainbow Bridge (Niagara Falls, NY–Niagara Falls, ON)
  • Lewiston–Queenston Bridge (Lewiston, NY–Queenston, ON)

The recommended crossing point to minimize tolls is to use the Peace Bridge. If you travel via the Lewiston–Queenston Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge, you’ll have to pay tolls when driving on I-190, and it’s all electronic tolling, meaning if your car doesn’t have an E-ZPass on it, you’ll have to pay by mail. (In the case of rental cars, it doesn’t matter if you have an E-ZPass or not: it’s going to be much more expensive than if you could just pay by cash at a toll booth.)

When crossing the bridge to enter Canada, the toll is US$4 as of 2022. There is no toll to cross the bridge to enter the United States.

How to do this for Vancouver?

The closest major U.S. airport to Vancouver is Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA), which, according to Google Maps, is exactly 2 hours 30 minutes away by car from Vancouver International Airport (YVR), excluding the time it takes to cross the border.

However, the closest U.S. airport to Vancouver is Bellingham International Airport, which is most popular with Canadians who want to avoid the long drive to Seattle and wish to fly to other destinations in the U.S. for cheap. Very few cities have direct flights to Bellingham, but it’s worth noting Alaska Airlines has flights between Seattle and Bellingham in case you are inclined to fly to Bellingham by connecting via Seattle. It’s less than 30 minutes from the U.S.–Canada border.

At the rental car pickup area, it’s worth asking your rental car company if you need to get a special Canadian car insurance document to place in your car. Not doing this, however, won’t be a major issue, as I’ve driven a rental car from Seattle to Vancouver without trouble.

Gasoline

Compared to the trip between Buffalo and Toronto, it will be harder to make a round trip between Seattle and Vancouver without refueling, but you can do this in a city in Washington near the border such as Blaine or Bellingham (or any city in Whatcom County, really). My recommendation is to fuel up once in Bellingham (right off of I-5) before you enter Canada.

Crossing the border

The primary place to cross the border is at the Peace Arch. It’s very simple to get here: just keep driving north on I-5 until it ends. Another border crossing nearby is the Pacific Highway one, but it’s mainly for commercial trucks shipping goods across the border. Passengers can still use it, but it’s not as pretty and you have to exit the highway and get back on, which is a pain. However, if you do not have NEXUS, it can be faster to use the Pacific Highway crossing. Check the road signs on either side of the border which specify the border crossing waits.

There are other points, like Abbotsford and Sumas, but they are out of the way, and honestly, are not really worth the detour even if Peace Arch has a slightly longer delay than the rest.

There is no toll to get to any of these border crossings.

Why you should apply for a new credit card every six months if you’re building credit

Want to build credit? The best way is probably going to be by applying for one new card every six months (give or take a few months—it doesn’t need to be precisely this long). While this may seem excessive, it actually is a great rule of thumb to live by because of how credit scores are calculated.

Won’t applying for too many credit cards lower my score?

When I was 18 years old, this is what I thought, and as a result, I was always hesitant to apply for new credit accounts. However, this ended up being false, and it’s because I had the following common concerns over how my credit score might drop because of applying to a new credit card:

  • Hard inquiry will lower credit scores
  • A new account lowers the average age of credit accounts on an individual’s credit file
  • Applying for too many credit cards at the same time can be alarming to a credit card issuing company
  • Opening a new credit card costs money

However, here’s why these concerns are mostly irrelevant.

Hard inquiries aren’t as bad as you might think they are

A hard inquiry will temporarily lower your score for like 3 months maximum, so you can chill about that, lol

Average account age is a long-term investment; be a tortoise, not a hare

If you never apply for more credit cards in an effort to raise your average account age, it will only hurt you in the future when you actually need the card. It is a fallacy. If you disagree with this assertion, let’s explore why with two scenarios, one labeled tortoise and one labeled hare:

  1. Tortoise: Let’s say you apply for one card every six months between 2020 and 2030. In 2030, the average age of your 20 accounts is 5 years, which is considered young. Your average age is currently on the lower side because you are still in the credit-building phase. But let’s say in 2040, you apply for 5 more credit cards in the same year. Before you applied, the average age was 15 years. Now your average is 12 years. Not too bad of a drop; it’s been propped up by all the accounts you opened between 2020 and 2030.
  2. Hare: Let’s say you applied for only one card in 2020. In 2030, the average age of your 1 account is 10 years. In 2040, the average age is 20 years. Congratulations, your average account age has surpassed that of the tortoise so far, so you are ahead. But if you apply for just one credit card in 2040, your average age suddenly drops to 10 years. If you apply for 5 credit cards in total in 2040, your average age just dropped to 3 years 4 months! You will have to wait almost 20 more years for your average age to go back up to 20 years. Now, you are way behind the tortoise, and there is nothing you can do about it, because you can’t turn back time.

As long as you don’t close old accounts, your accounts that are kept open will help prop up your average age. It ages like wine.

You might say, “oh I’ll just apply to one credit card right now and I won’t need another one, ever!” Well, that’s probably not true, because there will always be a credit card you might need to end up applying for in the future, and plus, you are saying goodbye to free money AND credit-building opportunities by doing that. (Free money because you miss out on sign-up bonuses, and credit-building because each new card increases your credit limit, which is good for decreasing utilization percentage.)

You might also say, “but I am in my 20s and need a mortgage now, not in 20 years!” Okay, but there’s also no way for you to get your average account age to 20 years by your own means, because you could only start applying for accounts less than 12 years ago, when you turned 18. A high average account age matters for those who can have them: people over 35-40. And there’s no way they could achieve that by their own means if they didn’t apply for cards early on in their adulthood.

There’s a difference between applying recklessly and applying often responsibly

Applying to 5 credit cards in the span of less than 1 month is definitely cause for concern. That may imply you’re broke and trying to get lines of credit to borrow on, only to not pay the debt back anytime soon. But one new card every six months is not an issue as long as you actually use the most recent card you got approved for and demonstrate at least 3-6 months of on-time payments for it. If you do that, it becomes clear your previous new card wasn’t used for carrying a balance, and therefore it makes credit card issuers a lot more comfortable with issuing you a new credit card, even if your last one was opened 6 months ago.

One rule of thumb you might want to keep in mind about applying too often is: you shouldn’t be breaking Chase’s 5/24 rule. They reject applicants who have already opened 5 accounts within the past 24 months. Applying for a new card once every 6 months won’t ever put you above 5/24.

Credit cards don’t have to cost money; in fact, most of them don’t

Some people get scared at the idea of applying for a new credit card because of its annual fee. The thing is, many credit cards don’t have annual fees! You certainly should not be keeping too many credit cards open that have annual fees, but the simple way to fix this problem is to… apply for credit cards that don’t have annual fees!

Should I apply just because, or does it help me build credit or earn bonuses?

Now that you see why the excuses are wrong, here’s why it’s still better to apply for them than to simply avoid applying at all:

  • Each new account raises your overall credit limit. When your credit limit is higher, the utilization rate is lower for the same amount of money owed. When your utilization rate is lower, your score is higher.
    • Let’s say each month, you spend $2,000 on your credit cards before you pay them off. This is constant because you need to get groceries, dine at restaurants, run errands, etc. If your overall credit limit is $5,000, your utilization is 40%, which might cause your credit score to drop dozens of points!! On the other hand, if your overall credit limit is $40,000, your utilization is only 5%, which keeps your credit score high.
    • Utilization is a highly influential factor in determining your credit score, and because it keeps changing, you never want your utilization to be higher than 10%, especially when you’re applying for a mortgage or auto loan
  • The more accounts you have, the better it is for your credit score.
    • If you have fewer than 21 open credit accounts, it technically lowers your credit score because you are considered to not have enough accounts open. While this impacts your score only modestly, it still means a lower score.
  • The earlier you apply for accounts, the better it will be for your average account age in a decade or two.
    • Again, as mentioned earlier, this is an investment for the future. Taking a temporary dip right now will help you raise your credit score in the future.
  • The more credit accounts you have open that are paid on-time, the more likely it will be that credit card issuers will open a new card for you.
    • Credit card issuers don’t just look at your score and make a determination. One of the other factors is taking a look at all of your current credit accounts. The more amount of credit accounts you have, and the more on-time payments you have, the better that looks for you.

In short, when you apply often but show a consistently responsible pattern of spending and then immediately repaying your debt, it actually increases your creditworthiness than if you only applied for a new account once every few years. If you only have a few accounts, there isn’t enough data for credit issuers to make a well-informed decision on whether to issue you a credit card, and it might even result in a rejection due to not having enough credit history. Conversely, this won’t be an issue for people who have lots of existing credit accounts that they responsibly pay off.

In regards to regularly earning sign-up bonuses, keep reading to see whether that’s a good idea or not.

Is there ever such a thing as too many credit cards?

It may be true that credit card companies can close accounts they believe are not being used anymore, as it may represent a liability to them in case you suddenly need to max out your credit cards and you come back to carry balances on your old credit cards. As long as you remember to make a few transactions on each of your cards on occasion, this won’t be a problem. Plus, remember how having fewer than 21 credit accounts is considered “not enough” by credit bureaus? Most people think 10 credit cards is “too many”, so it’s important to frame it in the context of the bureaucrats making the decisions, not our personal feelings.

Can I apply for a new credit card regularly to take advantage of their sign-up bonuses?

You sure can, and you can even do so responsibly, both earning rewards and keeping a good credit score. This is called churning. There is a subreddit called r/churning; you should take a look at it if you’re interested in methodically planning how to do this. Warning: I know churners and they take this very seriously! I’m talking about them having Excel sheets to plan out their next 5 credit cards to apply for in the next 3 years.

Why you should never use a debit card ever again

This is the equivalent of using a debit card

After I got my first credit card, I started saving money on my transactions because I got at least 1% cash back on each purchase. Once you get your first rewards credit card, in general, you should never use a debit card ever again.

Why?

By using a debit card, you are essentially throwing away free money! Why spend on a debit card and get 0% cash back when you can use a credit card and get at least 1% cash back? You’re still paying the same price to the merchant. Might as well stretch your dollar by an extra cent or two and save up for a nice vacation or to pay off some of your expenses.

Are there any exceptions?

Assuming you are eligible for a credit card, the only times you should use a debit card are when:

  1. The merchant only accepts debit cards, like WinCo
  2. When the merchant says they will charge you over 1% more to use a credit card over a debit card
  3. You are trying to withdraw cash from an ATM
  4. You’ve maxed out your credit cards and need to pay off your balance first

An important proviso: Using a credit card is only better than a debit card if you’re not carrying a balance. The rule here is to never spend more than you can afford. Carrying a balance is not only high interest (meaning you usually pay at least 25% to 30% more than you originally spent if you let the debt sit there for a year), it’s also highly detrimental to your credit score, and it takes many years to raise it to a healthy score.

What if I’ve maxed out my cards for the month?

Assuming you’ll pay off your balances, it’s still possible that your card might be maxed out for the month (i.e. you’ve reached the credit limit), and it won’t be usable again until the balance is paid off. If this is the case, you should still try to use another credit card you have (if you have any left), even if the earning rate is lower than your preferred card. For instance, if you hit your Chase Freedom Unlimited’s credit limit but you still have a Chase Freedom Flex to use, there’s no reason to give up and say “oh man, I won’t be getting 1.5% cash back anymore, I should just use a debit card”. No! Go use your Freedom Flex. You might not be getting 1.5% but you’ll still get 1% back. It’s not ideal, but you shouldn’t go back to using a debit card unless it is a last resort. (Also, try to avoid this by paying off your balances as soon as possible, multiple times a month.)

This is also a sign that you should apply for more no annual fee rewards credit cards.

Which credit cards should I apply for then?

Today, there are few credit cards that do not offer at least 1% cash back or 1x points on all purchases. If a credit card doesn’t have cash back, don’t apply for it. This goes for secured credit cards too; see why in the below section.

Keep in mind that not all cash back is created equal. For instance, many Capital One cards claim to offer 1x or 2x points on purchases, but in reality, the points are only worth ½ a cent when applied against your statement balance, so really you’re only getting 0.5% or 1% cash back. Programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards are much better in this regards (in Chase’s case, each point is always worth at least 1¢).

For my list of recommended cards, see My most useful credit cards.

What if I have bad or no credit?

If you need a secured credit card, then you can get one with cash back, like Quicksilver Secured or Discover Secured.

Even if you don’t yet have a credit history, there is still no excuse to use a debit card because you are most likely eligible for a student credit card. While they aren’t as glamorous as other credit cards and they don’t offer as nice of rewards, they are a stepping stone that still offer decent rewards. I’d recommend applying for either the Chase Freedom Student or the Discover it® Student Credit Card. Learn about how I got my first credit card, a Discover it® Student Credit Card, on this post: How I got my credit score above 800 before I turned 22 (Part 1).

My most useful credit cards

While I have 7 credit cards as of June 2022, I only use 4 credit cards on a day-to-day basis. The 4 cards I consider to be most useful for me (and the 4 I use the most) are, in no particular order:

  1. Chase Sapphire Preferred
  2. Chase Freedom Unlimited
  3. Chase Freedom Flex
  4. American Express Platinum Card®

I’ll explain why these are my favorite cards and why I find them the most useful.

(Full disclosure: by clicking on these application links, I’ll get a referral bonus if you get approved for the card. Thank you in advance for supporting my blogging!)

Chase Sapphire Preferred

The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a fantastic travel card for most people. With a modest $95 annual fee, it provides 2x points on travel purchases as well as 3x on dining & drugstore purchases. Its signup bonus gives you hundreds of dollars. Points are worth 1.25¢ instead of 1¢ when redeemed for travel on Chase Travel. Therefore, when redeeming for travel, you can consider the cash back value to be at least 2.5% on travel and at least 3.75% on dining & drugstores.

It provides a host of other travel-related benefits too, such as:

  1. No foreign transaction fees
  2. Limited trip interruption, trip cancellation, and trip delay insurance
  3. Baggage insurance
  4. Primary insurance coverage on rental cars

Each year at your card anniversary, you get $50 to spend on a hotel when booked through Chase Travel. This offsets the overall cost of the card to be only $45.

I mainly signed up when the limited-time 100,000 bonus points offer was running, which is worth at least $1,250 when redeemed for travel.

The high amount of value provided from the Sapphire Preferred makes it my go-to card for travel-related purchases, dining, and any transactions I make abroad.

Apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred by clicking here.

Chase Freedom Unlimited

The Chase Freedom Unlimited is a simple but powerful cash back card. It has no annual fee, yet it provides 1.5x back on all purchases, except for dining & drugstores, where it’s doubled and becomes 3x back. The 1.5x back on everything is one of the highest amounts for general purchases among reward credit cards; the Citi DoubleCash’s 2% back is better, but pair the Freedom Unlimited with a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card and your Chase Ultimate Rewards points become more valuable. Since you can interchangably transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points between each card at a 1:1 ratio with no fees and no limits, any points earned on one Ultimate Rewards card is as good as earning it on another.

Apply for the Chase Freedom Unlimited by clicking here.

Chase Freedom Flex

The Chase Freedom Flex is a nice no annual fee rotating bonuses card where you get 5% back on purchases belonging to select categories that change each quarter. The bonus cash back is something that you shouldn’t miss if at all possible; I just wouldn’t rely on it for anything because the elevated cash back rate changes each quarter, and most spending habits don’t change quarterly. Again, it becomes more powerful when paired with a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve card, for the same reasons as Freedom Unlimited. I wouldn’t recommend getting this card until you have both the Sapphire Preferred and Freedom Unlimited cards. However, I think it remains valuable, especially when the bonus categories happen to be for expenses you were going to make anyway and you can get some bonus points to use towards your next travel redemption.

Apply for the Chase Freedom Flex by clicking here.

American Express Platinum Card

The Amex Platinum is a luxury travel card that is perhaps the most expensive mainstream consumer credit card available. With an annual fee of $695, its high cost is offset by its various benefits, such as the signature Centurion Lounge network. For more information on why I like my Amex Platinum, see The best personal finance mistake I ever made.

It’s important to note that, despite this card’s various benefits, I only find its 5x points on airfare to be valuable. The 5x points on hotels booked through AmexTravel.com are limited in use, and everything else is 1x back, which is inferior to Chase Freedom Unlimited’s 1.5x points on everything, and that’s a card with no annual fee.

Apply for the Amex Platinum by clicking here.

How I’m earning 9% cash back on gas from July-September 2022

Getting 9% back on gasoline on my purchase at Buc-ee’s.

In June, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to apply for the Capital One Venture X card. Since I would hit Chase’s 5/24 rule by getting approved for this card, I decided to go ahead and hit 5/24 by completing the Chase trifecta: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Freedom Unlimited, and Chase Freedom Flex. This way, I could apply for other cards in peace without worrying about hitting 5/24 and disqualifying myself from Chase cards.

I applied for the Flex last month. Its introductory offer was 5% cash back for the first year. Then, for July–September 2022, one of the 5% cash back categories is at gas stations.

In theory, then, the cash back should be 10%, right? Well, actually, this is where it gets interesting.

Why it’s only 9% back instead of 10%

For both deals, it is an additional 4% cash back on top of the standard 1% back on all purchases. So, rather than two 5% bonuses stacking on top of each other, it’s actually the standard 1% cash back stacked on the intro offer’s additional 4% cash back stacked on the quarterly additional 4% cash back. That makes a total of 9%. Chase was nice enough to add an FAQ about this scenario to be perfectly clear about why it’s this case.

Chase’s explanation of why it’s 9% cash back rather than 10% cash back.

At least they were upfront about it, and I’m definitely glad the bonuses stack!

An unfortunate proviso

If you’re like me, one of my favorite gas stations is Costco. The gas prices are typically the lowest in the area and they have high-quality fuel that’s good for your engine, which they call “detergent gasoline”. However, this deal unfortunately won’t be possible to enjoy at Costco gas stations. It all boils down to the Chase Freedom Flex being a Mastercard instead of a Visa. I used to go to Costco and use my Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature card since it came with 2% back at gas stations. With this amazing 9% back offer, I’ll definitely be avoiding Costco since the amount saved with cash back is most likely greater than the amount Costco saves me compared to the next cheapest gas station.

Instead, I’ll probably be using my Walmart+ membership that I get through my Amex Platinum. It comes with a fuel perk that lets me get gas at Sam’s Club even if I don’t have a Sam’s membership, as well as giving me a 10¢ discount at Exxon gas stations. It’s almost always true that the Sam’s Club gas station’s pricing is about the same as Costco’s or at least within 10% of the pricing of Costco’s gas. Plus, the 10¢ discount at Exxon is no pithy amount either; it usually makes the pricing about the same as Costco or Sam’s Club.

My experience with getting approved for Global Entry

After the pandemic, with travel surging, the estimated application wait times for Global Entry has become less certain than before. As I recently went through the application process myself, I hope my experience will be a helpful data point.

The stages of the application process

There are essentially three stages:

  1. Applying for Global Entry
  2. Waiting for conditional approval
  3. Scheduling an enrollment interview

Waiting for conditional approval is usually what takes the longest and you have least control over this stage. Scheduling an enrollment interview can be tedious, but you can instead do what’s called Enrollment on Arrival (EoA), where you do the enrollment interview immediately after clearing customs and immigration at an airport upon return from a foreign country.

How the process started for me

I applied in mid-November 2021 after I got approved for my Amex Platinum and it gave me a Global Entry application credit. From what I had read online, it could take anywhere between 24 hours to 12+ months to get “conditionally approved”, with the average wait time being about 1-6 months. I was hoping for a quick approval, since I had no criminal records, but unfortunately that’s not how it works. This way, I could use Global Entry upon returning to the U.S. from Europe in late March 2022. Instead, I had to wait until early March of 2022 for my approval.

I kept checking my application portal for status updates, but as I later learned, this was a waste of time and more anxiety-inducing than necessary.

What the application portal looks like when you’re waiting for conditional approval.

Why did it take this long for my conditional approval?

From a perspective of completing a background check, the following factors may have influenced the time it took for my conditional approval to be issued:

  • I have lived in two states and in four counties
  • I have traveled abroad before
    • By the time I applied for Global Entry, I had visited Canada, China, and the United Arab Emirates within the past 5 years

It doesn’t take that long to get background checks from four counties across two states and then reconcile them (at least, it really ought not to!), but I suspect the travels to China and the UAE may have caused flags to be raised for further review. That’s fair, considering China is not on the best of terms with the U.S. right now, and traveling to the Middle East may raise alarm due to terrorist threats eminating from the region. To be honest, I am fine about vetting me for trustworthiness; I wouldn’t want anyone communicating with terrorists or committing espionage to be a member of Global Entry.

Completing enrollment

Conditional approval status on the TTP dashboard

I got an email with an application status update in early March, saying my application had been conditionally approved and the next step was enrollment. This is where I would have an interview with a CBP agent. Because I got this message when I was in Europe, the choice was obvious for me: rather than trying to book an appointment several months out, I’d simply elect to enroll upon arrival. As long as I was clearing customs at a reasonable time of day (my flight landed in mid-afternoon in Dallas), I could reasonably expect Enrollment on Arrival to be available.

Letter of conditional approval.

When landing in Dallas, the instructions were unclear on how I was to enroll upon arrival. Should I skip the regular immigration interview and ask to go to somewhere special to both clear immigration and enroll at the same time? I ended up asking staff and CBP agents at every step of the way. When passing through regular immigration (hopefully for the last time ever), I asked the agent where I could complete enrollment—he told me to ask after I had collected my bags. After collecting my bags, I asked the customs agents (the last people you’d talk to before you’d be “released” into the U.S.) and they took me to the secondary inspection area, where nobody was there except the secondary processing agent.

The interview process was very pleasant. The agent asked me where I worked (to confirm the information I typed into the application), if I had a criminal record, and then took my fingerprints. We even joked about the high cost of living in Seattle. (In my opinion, this interview should not be stressful at all. As long as you are telling the truth, it should be very easy to work with the agent, and if you are friendly with them (and if you’re like me and like to crack appropriate jokes), you can even relate to them and it makes the process better for both you and the agent. After all, they are human too!) At the end of the interview, she told me straight up that my application has been approved and that I would be receiving my card in the mail in 2-3 working days. Sweet!

My TTP portal after my Global Entry was approved. (Personal information redacted; the expiry date is on my birthday.)

Sure enough, I did receive my card in 2 working days in the mail, which was a surprisingly fast turnaround for a government agency that had taken 4 months with granting me conditional approval. My interview was on a Thursday and I got it on the following Monday. I immediately activated it online so I could use it at land crossings. (Read about my land crossing experience with Global Entry on this post: My experience using Global Entry for the first time by land.)

Letter of full approval.

The new LaGuardia is nothing short of amazing

Less than 10 years ago, then-Vice President Joe Biden said that being in LaGuardia Airport feels like “some third-world country”. Recently, I traveled to New York City for a week-long trip, the first time since the pandemic. The last time I was in LaGuardia was in 2018, where I remembered cramped, narrow hallways. This time, I landed in a completely different airport. And I mean it—apart from the location, there is basically nothing that is the same about the airport.

The new central concourse area in Terminal B.

How it feels different

When arriving in the new LaGuardia at Terminal B, I immediately got off the plane and realized I was in a completely new concourse. Everything looked new, from the seats to the restrooms to the building itself. To get to baggage claim, I had to go up a skybridge using an escalator that took passengers above the taxiing planes below.

The new skybridge connecting the main terminal area to the concourse.
Looking out at Terminal B’s Concourse 2 and the skybridge from the main terminal building.

Then, when I got to the main terminal building, it felt like I was in an entirely different building. Gone were the low ceilings and the outdated, decrepit building. The main terminal feels several stories high, about 5 stories tall. I felt like they built all of this on top of the old terminal building… (even though that’s not what they did; they built entirely new buildings.)

Going down to baggage claim involved taking two flights of escalators. The baggage claim area looked completely new as well.

When I took my plane out of LGA, the check-in hall was also completely new, with check-in counters vertically arranged like at all new airports, instead of horizontally spanning the length of the check-in area. Then, with security right behind the check-in area, a centralized security clearance zone boasts brand-new security machines and tray collection mechanisms under a tall ceiling. After security, you’d go up a flight of escalators to some shops, through which you’d proceed to get to the main terminal building. From there, you can make your way to your gate’s concourse by crossing one of the skybridges.

The new indoor fountain was cool and was, in my opinion, a symbol of the new LaGuardia, having something that you’d never think of the old one having. It was probably mainly made for young travelers, but it was a welcome addition nonetheless.

So what makes me say this airport is completely new? I honestly cannot remember seeing anything in 2018’s LaGuardia remotely related to what I went through this time. They did not just renovate the interior of the airport; they literally constructed new concourses and built a new building over the old one.

Gripes about the new airport

The main complaint I hear about the new airport is that it’s much bigger than the old one, and it takes longer to get from the check-in hall to the gate. To that, I say this: this is a small price to pay and is arguably irrelevant. Yes, you may have to cross a skybridge and walk five more minutes longer to your gate, but you live in New York City, which is going to need a big airport to handle all of the traffic. This is still the closest airport to Manhattan. Also, it’s still much smaller than JFK. Rather than having to deal with 8 terminals, there are only two. For people who take the MTA, it’s quite simple: you take the free Q70 bus from the Jackson Heights–Roosevelt Avenue station, get off at the bottom level, take the escalators two floors up to the check-in hall, go through security, and then make your way through the concourse to your gate. Assuming no waits, it takes about 10 minutes in total from arrival at the airport to passing security. About 5-10 more minutes is added to the walk from security through the skybridge to the gate, but it’s honestly worth the beautiful scenery and the need to accommodate more people, gates, and planes.

Even with these small complaints, the consensus on the new LaGuardia is basically unanimous: the airport has completely changed and it is awesome now. People look forward to using LaGuardia. I am definitely in the same camp.

But wait, there’s more

Believe it or not, but the renovations (or, rather, a total rebuild?) of LaGuardia are apparently not complete yet. From what I could tell, though, this is an outdated graphic hanging in the airport, as the vast majority of the work has already been completed and the only thing that’s supposed to be coming soon are to do with the garage (if I’m not mistaken), the “Central Hall” area connecting Terminals B to C, as well as the proposed AirTrain LGA.

Would I fly LaGuardia again?

Yes, yes, yes!

The new LaGuardia is now easily my favorite airport in the United States. It compares very favorably to new airport terminals around the world: Dubai International Airport, Beijing Daxing, Berlin Brandenburg, London Heathrow Terminal 5, the new Istanbul Airport. More importantly, in response to Joe Biden’s comment that LaGuardia is like an airport in a third-world country, I can safely say that LaGuardia is now easily one of the best airports in first-world countries.

While I still have to take a bus, I am used to taking the Q70 from LaGuardia to Jackson Heights. It conveniently links up with several major subway lines like the 7 and the E. Plus, the Q70 is now free, so there’s no need to buy a MetroCard. (Not that you’d need one anyway—I used OMNY on the rest of the MTA system using my Apple Watch and it’s amazing!) The airport is the right balance between too big and too cramped, and its prime location/connection to the MTA still makes it ideal for travel compared to Newark. The jury is out on whether it beats JFK, but I would argue its closer distance continues to outweigh the lack of a direct train link to the airport.

How I got my credit score above 800 before I turned 22 (Part 2)

My high credit limit now lets me keep my utilization at very low percentages, so it never too badly affects my credit score anymore.

This is part 2 of a two-part post. For part 1, see: How I got a credit score above 800 before I turned 22 (Part 1).

I wasn’t planning on applying to a new credit anytime soon, as I was content on the credit cards I already had: Discover it® Student, Chase Freedom Unlimited, the Apple Card, and the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Credit Card. Across these four cards, I had the following benefits combined:

  • Unlimited 5x points on Amazon.com and Whole Foods purchases (Amazon Prime Rewards)
  • 5% cash back on rotating categories every quarter up to $75 back which is equivalent to $1,500 of qualifying purchases (Discover it® Student)
  • Unlimited 3x points on dining and drugstores (Chase Freedom Unlimited, as of the pandemic)
  • Unlimited 3% cash back on all purchases at Apple and select other merchants (Apple Card)
  • Unlimited 2x points on gas (Amazon Prime Rewards)
  • Unlimited 2% cash back on all Apple Pay purchases (Apple Card)
  • Unlimited 1.5x points (Chase Freedom Unlimited)

I had a solid collection of cash back and rewards that span a sizable portion of my purchases. Even purchases that don’t fit this category still get the equivalent of 1.5% cash back.

But the 100,000 sign-up bonus points offer for the Chase Sapphire Preferred wasn’t going to last forever. (Sure enough, it did disappear about 4 months after the elevated offer was launched, so I’m glad I took advantage of it when I did.) This sign-up bonus could potentially save me $1,000 at least. With the Chase Sapphire Preferred, one particularly enticing benefit is each point is worth 1.25¢ when booking travel through Chase Travel. On here, one can book flights, hotels, and rental cars. The selection of hotels is great, the booking website is easy to use and powerful for finding the right hotel, and the pricing is fair. Through this, 100,000 bonus points would buy me $1,250 of travel. While I later learned there are better ways to use these 100,000 points, this method requires no special tricks and works as advertised. This was particularly enticing for me and I really wanted to use this benefit.

As the Chase Sapphire Preferred provides more powerful uses of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, it’d be better for me to use it as much as I can. However, that doesn’t mean I have to stop using my Chase Freedom Unlimited card; in fact, I can use them in tandem. It’s possible to stretch the 1.25¢/point spending benefit of the Chase Sapphire Preferred, as well as other points-based benefits of the card, further by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points from other Chase cards. The points I had accrued from my Chase Freedom Unlimited could be transferred without limits and without fees, 1:1 to my Chase Sapphire Preferred. As long as I make the transfer, I essentially get 1.875¢ per dollar spent on my Chase Freedom Unlimited to redeem on travel. That’s pretty close to 2%.

The Chase Sapphire Preferred has an annual fee of $95. Thus far, I only had credit cards without annual fees. By opening this card, I would need to keep paying $95 each year or cancel the card. Canceling a card is bad for credit history for a few reasons, so I’d need a way out that doesn’t damage my credit history. I decided that if I ever wanted to cancel the Sapphire Preferred, I would actually instead do a product change to a Chase Freedom card (closed to new signups). This would let me keep the same credit account open so my credit history wouldn’t get affected. The only change is that the card is now under a different product (and therefore without an annual fee to pay).

I was pretty confident I would be approved. I now had a credit score of over 750, I had 4 credit cards on each of which I had spent thousands of dollars, and I had a perfect payment history on each of them. I also had a few internships that brought my adjusted gross income to over $70,000 for the year.

After applying in June 2021 and providing my adjusted gross income of around $70,000, I got approved for the card immediately. I was granted a credit limit of $19,000, which was mind-blowing to me, considering my existing cards had credit limits of only around $4,000 to $6,000. With a credit limit of $19,000, I added a significant amount of credit to my total credit limit, which would help significantly with decreasing credit utilization and would therefore help my credit score significantly.

Now, I just had to reach the $4,000 threshold within 3 months to get my 100,000 points sign-up bonus. Over the next few months, my focus was on spending the $4,000. With enough spending in restaurants, groceries, travel, and other needs (and volunteering to front money when splitting the restaurant check with friends), I eventually did reach the $4,000 threshold and I was able to get the 100,000 bonus points.

With the Chase Sapphire Preferred, I got an additional cash back benefit of 2x points on all travel. Furthermore, it didn’t have any foreign transaction fees, which made it attractive to use when abroad. This card became my primary card for both travel and dining, since, like the other Chase Freedom cards, it also came with 3x points on dining and drugstores. While the 3x points on dining perk exists on the Chase Freedom cards as well, I had a higher credit limit on my Chase Sapphire, so it would be better for me to place my purchases on there and save my credit limit for other miscellaneous items where the Chase Freedom Unlimited gives me a higher cash back amount than if I had used the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

The last card I added to my wallet before I saw my credit score rise up to 800 was my American Express Platinum Card. I had been drooling about this card for a while, since it came with so many benefits and, to be honest, is quite a status symbol. However, I wasn’t sure if I would be accepted for such a high-end card. I was concerned that my credit history was not established enough and my income was not $200,000 a year. I ended up applying for the card and, to my surprise, was accepted. For the story of how I got my card, see The best mistake of my personal finance life ever.

With these additions to my collection, let’s see how much adding a credit card impacts my score.

Chase Sapphire Preferred:

  • Hard inquiry made against my credit account, leading to a temporary dip in my credit score
    • Bad
    • Very low impact, temporary
  • Lowering my average credit age
    • Bad
    • Medium impact
  • $19,000 credit limit
    • Good
    • High impact

American Express Platinum Card:

  • Hard inquiry made against my credit account, leading to a temporary dip in my credit score
    • Bad
    • Very low impact, temporary
  • Lowering my average credit age
    • Bad
    • Medium impact
  • No credit limit
    • That’s right, this card doesn’t come with a specific credit limit. This leads to an odd situation, where my credit limit doesn’t go up, and my debts here apparently do not count towards the credit utilization calculation.
    • No impact

As you can see, the tradeoff is sacrificing my average accounts age for an increase in my overall credit limit. While the Chase Sapphire Preferred clearly helped me achieve a higher credit score with the addition of almost $20,000 to my total credit limit, the Amex Platinum seems to be less useful, and should be considered more useful for its other benefits rather than for credit building.

Now, let’s do a check-in on my overall creditworthiness. Here’s what Credit Karma says about my credit history:

My “report card” from my TransUnion data

As a 21 year old, I think there’s some things for which I can cut myself some slack:

  • Total number of accounts is too low, which shows I only have a “limited” number of accounts. Credit Karma says 0-10 accounts is “needs work”, 11-20 accounts is “fair”, and 21+ is “excellent”. It’s honestly a miracle that I already have 9 accounts.
  • Average credit age is too low. Of course it’s low; I could only have opened my own accounts at most 4 years ago. It’s being buoyed by my parents’ 18 year old Citi DoubleCash card, on which I am an authorized user.

Therefore, I think having credit scores above 800 already shows that I am a responsible borrower of money capable of repaying my debts and worthy of new lines of credit.

Since my score went up to 800 on both Equifax and TransUnion, I have applied for another card: Chase Freedom Flex. This added another $12,000 to my total credit limit and did not significantly negatively impact my score.

All in all, my total credit limit is now $85,450. Under 10% utilization is considered to be excellent, so I can spend a few thousand a month, and as long as I have under $8,000 combined on my accounts at any one time, I shouldn’t see any real negative impact on my credit score due to my credit balance. (Again, this is not condoning carrying a balance; this only refers to the temporary balance I have for less than a month, during the payment grace period between when I make the purchase and when my statement payment is due.)

I don’t think I’m desperate for much more credit, but thanks anyway Credit Karma!

In conclusion, I’m super glad I made the decisions I made in order to achieve a high credit score within years of becoming an adult. This will let me get the best rates on mortgages and other loans I may need in the future, which will save me lots of money. Furthermore, I get to enjoy the best credit cards available on the market, which lets me gain countless benefits at hotels and airlines, while simultaneously also lets me save money on travel expenses for when I next go on vacation!

I highly encourage anyone who is between 18 to 21 to start with a path similar to what I did in How I got a credit score above 800 before I turned 22 (Part 1). You’ll be well ahead of your peers and it’ll let you enjoy life so much more than if you didn’t have a nice credit score.

The best personal finance mistake I ever made

Receiving my new Platinum Card in a fancy box. I guess that’s what I get with spending $695?

I had been drooling about the American Express Platinum Card card for a while, since it came with so many benefits and, to be honest, is quite a status symbol. However, the $695 annual fee was steep and I was doubtful I would make use of its benefits.

One night in early November 2021, I decided I wanted to see if I would be pre-approved for the Amex Platinum. I wasn’t sure at all if I would be eligible as a 21 year old without a long credit history. The title of this post is foreboding what’s about to happen. Don’t judge me for what I’m about to say! I went onto their website and I thought I could apply and see if I would be pre-approved before I could go through with the application. It was unclear to me that the website was for applying for the card rather than just a pre-approval form designing to give me my odds. So I filled it out and got approved, and immediately it said that my card was coming in two days.

Wait, what?!

I didn’t want this card! I didn’t think I wanted to spend $695 on a card. Sure, the ability to go to the Centurion Lounge for my flights and use Priority Pass lounges was excellent, but did I really have a use for this? I really doubted it, but when I looked up how feasible it would be to cancel, it said that the hard inquiry would remain on my account even if I wanted to immediately cancel it. This meant that I couldn’t “undo” my mistake completely.

Because of my idiocy, I now had to contemplate whether I wanted to keep the card or not. I decided to enumerate the benefits of the card that I would use and the dollar value it would carry for me. Ultimately, I found the following would be valuable to me:

  • Global Entry credit
  • Clear credit
  • $200 hotels credit (for The Hotel Collection and Fine Hotels and Resorts hotels)
  • $200 airline incidental fee credit
  • Free Hilton and Marriott Gold statuses
  • $200 Uber credit per year
  • $240 digital entertainment credit
  • Walmart+ membership
  • Centurion Lounge access
  • Priority Pass

These benefits stacked together vastly exceeded the $695 annual fee, so I relented and decided to keep the card. The biggest reason was because I was planning a big, expensive trip to Europe in early 2022, and I would need to pre-book all of my travel expenses in advance.

The sign-up bonus was again 100,000 points. This time, the threshold was $6,000 in the first 6 months, which I easily met with all the traveling I did. For the first six months, I would also get 10x points for dining and shopping at Amex’s “small businesses”, which is an insane and absolutely amazing offer.

The regular points back amount was 5x on flights booked directly through the airline or on Amex Travel, 5x on hotels booked through Amex Travel, and 1x on everything else. The limitation of 5x back on hotels booked on Amex Travel, while understandable due to the lower margins of the hotel business, was quite limiting because I had to book through their travel portal, which meant not being able to easily enjoy the Hilton and Marriott benefits, nor would I earn any Marriott Bonvoy/Hilton Honors/World of Hyatt points. The flights benefit was particularly helpful though; Amex Travel is its own travel agent, so it can actually get me discounted rate flights that aren’t available to the general public. The downside to booking flights with Amex Travel is I have to use their phone service to change flights and it’s very difficult to do this because it’s not possible to do this online and I have to call them and wait on the phone to make a simple change.

Anyway, TL;DR, it was worth it, so I kept it.

During my trip to Europe, I made full use of the following benefits:

  • $200 The Hotel Collection credit (for my stays in Barcelona and Rome)
  • $200 airline incidentals fee (for the copay of my upgrade to business class on my transatlantic flight back from Paris)
  • Hilton Honors Gold (literally got me about 30 days worth of free breakfast at Hiltons, as in the 4-star hotels named Hilton that usually charge €30 for each morning of breakfast. I consider the savings for this to be over $500)
  • Priority Pass for so many lounges! (It was an absolute lifesaver!)
  • Temporary 10x points on dining (where they accepted Amex, that is; over half the time, my Amex was not accepted)
  • 5x points on flights (I used this for Air France, British Airways, Turkish Airlines, and Vueling)
  • 5x points on hotels booked through Amex (I used this to book my hotels in Barcelona, Rome, Zurich, Nice, and my second stay in Paris)

Despite the insanely high price of the card, I think the benefits are worth it, as long as I use them. Apart from the 120,000 points I need to now use for airplane tickets sometime in the future, I’ve already been to the Centurion Lounges at least 8 times and I think they are really helpful for relaxing in the airport; it makes the travel experience a lot more bearable and dare I say somewhat more fun (unless your flight gets delayed, then not so much).

CBP beginning to use facial recognition at airport ports of entry

What CBP’s facial recognition setup looks like

If you’ve returned to the United States from abroad recently, depending on where you returned from, you may have not had to even hand the CBP agent your passport. When I landed from Paris in March 2022 at Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport and was clearing immigration, my experience went like this:

CBP agent: Take off your mask and look at the camera.
Me: *takes off mask and looks at camera*
CBP agent: Hello there, Jeffrey!
Me: So you do know me!
(Then the CBP agent proceeds to ask me questions.)

It’s important to note that this technology cannot be opted out of if you are a foreign national, even if you have a green card. For U.S. citizens, usage of facial recognition is optional, but if you refuse, it’ll make your immigration process longer and more annoying, and you might even be sent to secondary. After a long transatlantic flight, I was not in the mood to be principled and object to this; I just wanted to be done with it and go home. Furthermore, I’m actually a fan of the CBP Biometrics program, as it does make crossing the border safer and it lets us keep up with the technology used by other countries like China, who started doing this between 2017 and 2019, and the United Arab Emirates, before we did in 2020. Without getting into politics, I will just say that it’s both cool and scary that this is the technology available today.