At the beginning of the year, my wife and I made plans for our “dream USA vacation”. We got married about three years ago, and wanted to travel the world, specifically Eastern Europe and USA, before planning for a family.
As co-founder of DollarsAndSense, I always feel obliged to make good financial decisions or at least learn a financial perspective in my everyday choices. You can read parts of my Eastern European holiday, where I detailed some of the pros and cons to using a Multi-Currency Account (MCA) over cash and credit cards.
For my holiday to the USA, I decided to give new Multi-Currency Mobile wallet – YouTrip – a spin. It was useful for me, and hopefully my experience can help readers understand more about using the card for an upcoming holiday.
Before Travelling To The USA
Knowing a 3-week holiday in the USA was going to make a big dent in our savings accounts, we decided to start planning early. These were some things we did:
i) Build A Separate “USA Holiday” Fund, which would minimise any impact on our existing emergency funds and long-term / retirement savings.
ii) Book our flights and accommodations far in advanced, to get a good deal. We ended up booking a non-stop flight to San Francisco on United Airlines (UA), as we didn’t want to prolong the journey with a layover. Even then, the flight was about 14 hours long.
We also booked many of our accommodations with Airbnb, as it turned out to be a more affordable option. As we had decided to rent a car to travel from city to city (4 in all), Airbnb options were also more amendable.
iii) Planned what we wanted to do and see in the different cities we were visiting. From an itinerary perspective, this gave us a lot of foresight into knowing what was possible and impossible to do, and not overstretch ourselves.
iv) Another benefit of planning early gave us two advantages when it came to exchanging money. 1) We could estimate how much we would need to save in our “USA Holiday” fund; and 2) we could monitor the SGD-USD exchange rate, and exchange money when we see a good rate.
In general, we can’t really know what a “good” rate is, because if it’s a good rate, it could always get better, and if it’s a bad rate, it could always get worse. For me, if I saw the SGD-USD pairing hit a 6-month low, it meant it was a “good”.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) for us, there was never a good rate, until the week we were going to fly. So, we didn’t end up using this strategy.
Of course, I also applied for my YouTrip card, which came in my mail within a few days.
Exchanging Money In Singapore
Just before leaving, I exchanged $520 into my YouTrip card. This was conveniently done, by topping up with my Singapore credit card.
As shown in the screenshot below, I exchanged $260 into USD, on consecutive days, just to see how the exchange rate would differ. I actually got a slightly better rate on the first day – but they were relatively close.
On YouTrip, I received a rate of $1:US$0.7350 on the first day, and $1:US$0.7342 on the second day.
On hindsight, I would have changed more money into my YouTrip card, and relied on it for most transactions in the USA. However, I won’t beat myself up over it, as it was my first time using the card, and I wanted to be cautious.
I also compared the rate I got on YouTrip to other Multi Currency Accounts and physical money changers, and they were competitive. Here’s a screenshot of the exchange rate I got at a money changer.
At the money changer, at The Arcade (of course), I received a rate of $1:US$0.7370. This was a tiny bit better than the rate I got on YouTrip.
Spending Money On My YouTrip Card In The USA
I used all of my $520 I exchanged, and even ended up topping up more on my YouTrip card in the USA. Here are some of the ways I spent my money, and learned some financial insights while doing so.
# 1 Paying For My Uber/Lyft Rides
When we finally arrived in San Francisco after our 14+ hours flight, we were exhausted and still stuck on the morning of the same day we left (due to the time difference).
I booked us an Uber (which I already had installed on my phone), to the place we were living at. I didn’t try to link my YouTrip card on it, and I’m going to put it down to being tired after a long flight.
This means I was going to pay for it with my Singapore credit card – which turned out to be a great little experiment to find out how much more I would pay.
The trip was charged at US$43.40. What I ended up paying in Singapore, turned out to be $61.13. This translates into an exchange rate of $1:US$0.7100, which is worse than the exchange rate I had received on YouTrip.
In comparison, when I linked my YouTrip card on Lyft, which was offering a discount for first time users (and likely last time, for me), I paid it direct from my YouTrip wallet, without incurring any further charges.
As shown in the screenshot, on the Lyft app, the ride cost me US$15.44.
Exactly US$15.44 was deducted from my YouTrip wallet.
One drawback was that I was not able to pair my YouTrip card on the Uber app for some reason. I’m not sure if this was an Uber problem or a YouTrip problem though.
When I tried to link it, Uber was verifying it by deducting Singapore Dollar from my YouTrip wallet, which actually had US Dollars in it, and was refunding it for some reason. I tried this twice before giving up.
# 2 Renting Our Car For The Road Trip
Instead of booking ahead, we rented a car only when we got in to San Francisco. While this wasn’t the smartest move, we did it this way because we weren’t sure whether we wanted to use it to get around San Francisco or just when we wanted to drive down to Los Angeles for the 2nd leg of our holiday.
This probably ended up costing us more. At the rental outlet, the cashier insisted we paid with a credit card rather than cash. Instead of holding up the queue to top up my YouTrip wallet, I fished out my Singapore credit card.
Similar to the bad exchange rate I got on my first Uber booking, this ended up costing us more than if I used my YouTrip card as well.
# 3 Filling Petrol On Our Rental Car
The plan was to drive from San Francisco, down to Los Angeles and then on to Las Vegas, where we would return the car. This meant we had to constantly fill petrol along the way.
The first thing I noticed was that gas prices were cheaper – about US$3.60 for a gallon, or $1.35 per litre.
That’s our rental at pump 5.
And, that’s us, paying for US$30 worth of petrol with our YouTrip card. Simple.
One thing I did learn was that we had to go into the store to pay for our petrol at the counter, while most other cars didn’t have to.
At the pump, we had to option of paying with a credit card as well, but we couldn’t with our YouTrip card, or with any foreign credit cards actually.
This is us, finding out we had to go into the store to pay for our petrol before being allowed to start pumping. While it was still a very simple process, this is something we just take note of.
After hitting the “No” option, I was met with this question.
If you don’t live in the USA, you probably won’t have a ZIP Code to enter.
One more thing to note is that even though we paid for US$30 worth of gas, we only ended up filling US$23.93 worth of petrol. Not to fret, you don’t have to go back in the station to ask for any sort of refunds, you would just be charged US$23.93.
This showed up as our charge in our YouTrip wallet.
#4 Eating Out And Shopping
Using the YouTrip card as a normal credit card for our shopping and dining expenses was a breeze. The amount we were charged at the counter, was the exact cost stated in our YouTrip wallet – no further mark-ups or fees.
We ate at all sorts of places, including a McDonald’s, a classic American Diner – Peggy Sue’s – and, most scrumptiously, at Hell’s Kitchen!
That’s my card stuck into the McDonald’s self-service counter.
This is me on the far left, checking out the pies on offer at Peggy Sue’s, a popular 50’sDiner, along the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
And, this is my wife and I, taking the mandatory photo to prove that we actually ate at Hell’s Kitchen.
As mentioned, we also used the YouTrip card on many of our other purchases in the USA, and it was a really seamless experience. In fact, it was so good, we made several more top ups when our initial $520 ran out. (Yes, it was an expensive “once-in-a-lifetime” trip).
#5 Topping Up My YouTrip Wallet, While Still Vacationing
It was inevitable that we were going to run out of money in our YouTrip wallet. Rather than start to spend more in the cash we brought, we decided to just top-up our YouTrip wallet when we needed to.
This allowed us to always have sufficient physical cash on us and never actually needing to scout for a good physical money changer in the USA.
This was one of the times I topped up my YouTrip wallet with another $250.
The exchange rate I got was marginally lower than the initial rate I got in Singapore, on both the YouTrip wallet and at the physical money changer. I reasoned that it was really just a small dip.
Another way the YouTrip card came in handy, was that I never actually needed to use my Singapore credit card for any of my expenses. I could simply use that credit card, to top up my YouTrip wallet instantly, and then use the money right away.
This limited any inferior exchange rates and/or incurring additional fees and charges, while enjoying all the flexibility of spending on a credit card.
While there may have been other lessons, financial and otherwise, that I gained from my holiday to the USA, these are the main learning points I have from using my YouTrip card and mobile wallet.
It Was (Mostly) Good
As the article title explained, it was a mostly good experience. Remember how I explained that I could not link my YouTrip card with Uber earlier?
Well, this popped up in my charges.
As at the time of writing, I am checking with YouTrip why I was charged this amount. I’m also going to verify if this was an actual ride that I took, but instead of being charged in my credit card statement at the end of the month, was actually charged on my YouTrip card.
Physical Money Was Still Important
While paying for our expenses with the YouTrip card was very convenient, having physical cash was still important. Many smaller street and carnival vendors only accepted cash, the USA also has a very ingrained tipping culture, and for people like our tour guides and at restaurants, we tipped in cash.
Surprisingly, when we were at some of the outlet shops, there were several instances where customers who paid in cash were attended to much faster than those paying with card. We used cash on many occasions to bypass the queues.
On hindsight, I probably would have exchanged less physical money and put more into the YouTrip wallet as it gave me all the convenience of a credit card, without any of the extra costs, such as an unknown (but bad) exchange rate and additional overseas fees and transaction charges.
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As I was only topping up $250 each time, I wasn’t left with too much money in my YouTrip wallet at the end. And, this didn’t really stop my from “binge” spending at the airport, knowing I still had sufficient US Dollars to buy an extra sandwich while waiting to board.
In the end, I was left with about US$3 in my YouTrip wallet. I’m not going to exchange back into Singapore Dollars, instead, I’ll just wait till I go on my next overseas trip to exchange it into that currency. YouTrip offers access to over 150 foreign currencies, and I’m sure I’ll be able to use this spare change soon.
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