Why You Should Use Upromise to Book All Your Travel

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo
[Note: This was originally published on the now-defunct site Travora.com]

Upromise's travel booking portal.
Upromise’s travel booking portal.
This may seem unbelievable, but I know a travel start-up CEO who swears she has never used a booking engine to purchase a flight.

We were meeting about something else entirely when she mentioned this a few weeks ago. “Why would I?” she said, when we wandered off-topic and started discussing booking engines.

“I have one compelling reason,” I answered.

“Ok, tell me,” she said, looking entirely unconvinced that I would offer a persuasive argument.

“My daughter’s 529 savings.”

“Tell me more,” she said, suddenly interested.

I went on to explain that in three years, about one-third of the savings my husband and I have invested in our daughter’s 529 plan came from the contribution percentages accrued through purchases made on Expedia through the Upromise program. Given that even the best interest rates on savings accounts aren’t topping 1% as of this writing (the best I found was through ING Direct [now Capital One], which offers a variable 0.75% annual percentage yield), the accruals through the Upromise-Expedia partnership are substantial.

But what is the Upromise program?

Upromise describes itself as a college savings program, but it’s also a shopping portal, one that functions online and off. Membership in Upromise is free, and when a member shops with one of Upromise’s partners– there are more than 800 online partners, 10,000 restaurants, and 21,000 bricks and mortar grocery stores and pharmacies—he or she receives a contribution that is equivalent to 1-25% of the purchase price; the percentage varies by partner. Upromise makes deposits into the 529 savings program you designate. The bonus is that your family and friends can also make their purchases through Upromise partners and designate their earnings to your 529 plan.

If you are a frequent traveler and you have children in your life (whether your own or a friend’s or family member’s) who will eventually go to college, then using Upromise to book flights and other travel services is the ultimate travel and savings hack. Even if you don’t have children yet, you can establish an account and start saving. We actually set my daughter’s account up before she was born. The fact that family and friends can accrue savings for the same account accelerates total savings exponentially. Once you’ve registered, Upromise offers you a customizable email you can forward to the family and friends you’d feel comfortable asking to contribute.

Mariel is always ready to hit the road.
Mariel is always ready to hit the road.

Using Upromise is incredibly easy. You sign up for a free account at Upromise.com. Then, anytime you make an online purchase, whether travel-related or otherwise, use the “Search” function on the Upromise homepage to see if the item you want is sold by a Upromise partner vendor; you can search by object or by the name of the store or vendor. Once you’ve located the item or seller, you’ll see the earnings percentage the vendor offers. Click “Shop Now,” and you will automatically be redirected to the seller’s site; from there, you will make your purchase as you normally would. Upromise calculates the earnings percentage and makes a deposit into your linked savings account.

I book almost all of my flights through Expedia because of its partnership with Upromise; Expedia’s percentage contribution is currently 6%. Expedia isn’t Upromise’s only booking engine partner, though; as of this writing, there are 86 other travel partners. Booking engine partners include Hotels.com (5%), Hotwire (5%), Orbitz (6%), Priceline (6%), Travelocity (6%) and Vayama ($15 per booking); airlines include Alaska Airlines ($2 per booking) and British Airways (1%); hotel partners include Aloft, W Hotels (5%) Westin (5%) and select Four Seasons, Ritz, and St. Regis properties; car rental companies include Avis (5%), Enterprise (2%), and Payless (2%); and cruise ships include Avalon Waterways (3%) and Azamara (3%).

You can still use discounts, coupons, and other PC codes or book award/points travel when you purchase online with a vendor after having accessed its site through Upromise. Upromise does not impact other miles or points accrual systems, such as frequent flyer or loyalty programs, so no worries there, either.

Do you have any travel tips that make saving easier? Share them in the comments.

San Juan Insider Travel App Now Available

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo

We couldn’t have timed the launch of our “San Juan Insider” travel app better if we had tried: the Puerto Rico Tourism Company launched a new marketing campaign on November 30 and temperatures in the Northeast started to dip at the same time, prompting thoughts about winter escapes to warmer places.

“San Juan Insider” is a travel guide to Puerto Rico’s capital city, and it can be downloaded from the iTunes store for use on iPhones, iPads, or iPod Touches. The cost is just $1.99 and all future updates are free.

“San Juan Insider” is comprised of 99 entries representing what we consider to be the best restaurants, hotels, and experiences in San Juan… and our reasons why. Each entry features a photo gallery, ranging from 2-10 photos, intended to give the user a preview of what to expect when they visit in person. Each entry is also accompanied by a Google map, website, phone number, price, and service information (such as hours of operation).

Please spread the word!

Cambio Monetario en Cuba/Changing Money in Cuba

Text: Martin Pei de la Paz
Photos: Francisco Collazo and Brayan Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]

Traveling to another country presents a number of logistical challenges: finding accommodation, learning the local transportation system, making sure you’re safe, and learning local customs, to name just a few. Visiting Cuba presents even more challenges, such as exchanging money, and then, learning about the different types of currency, how items are priced, and forms of payment.

Cuba, with its CUC (shorthand for the “Cuban convertible”, as it’s called), turns money exchange into a science that’s not easy to decipher in one or two weeks. Figuring out the maze of transactions is a task that’s utterly Cuban–and tough, to boot.

Recently, some German friends of mine wanted to have the experience of buying fresh fruit and vegetables at a local market. A chalkboard indicated that guavas were 5 pesos a pound. They paid 10 CUC for two pounds of these delicious, aromatic fruit.

In reality, they paid $240 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of a Cuban’s monthly salary.

Every CUC is equivalent to 24 Cuban pesos. Every CUC is divisible into $0.25, $0.10 and $0.05 coins, facilitating small transactions, quite similar to the US dollar.

Although they were aware of the equivalency, my friends never thought that the national markets would charge in national currency (the peso) and not in CUC (the convertible).

The Cuban national currency (the peso) generates confusion among tourists, particularly as the coins look similar to those of the CUC. Complicating this scenario is the fact that we have a complex system of payment, which one can really only learn through his or her experiences of living in Cuba.

The peso is the currency used by the government to pay its workers. It’s also the currency that’s used to pay for daily expenses, such as transportation, as well as telephone and electric bills.

Oftentimes, tourists pay for services in CUC when they should be paying in Cuban pesos. Many Cubans take advantage of tourists’ lack of knowledge about the currency for motives of personal gain. It’s a common situation in markets that are designated for national consumption.

The system of money exchange gets more complicated and darker still, even for Cubans. For example, if you stop at a store designated for national consumption and you only have CUC, the exchange value of that CUC will only be 20 Cuban pesos instead of 24 Cuban pesos… complex, right? Yes, it is. Returning to our example of the German tourists buying guavas, having paid with one CUC, they would have only received 10 Cuban pesos, instead of 14, the official rate.

To get a better sense of this internal exchange rate, here’s a conversion table used by the Currency Exchange Bureaus in Cuba (CADECAs):

1 CUC= $24.00 Cuban Pesos
0.25= $6.00
0.10= $2.40
0.05= $1.20

The rate of exchange described in the market scenario, which I’ll refer to as an illicit exchange rate, are reflected in the following table:

1CUC= $20.00 Cuban Pesos
0.25= $5.00
0.10= $2.00
0.05= $1.00

Who knows what the reason is for this difference in the exchange rate in markets compared to the official exchange rate, but perhaps it can be explained by two possibilities: one, the ease with which this modified exchange rate facilitates transactions for vendors, who can work with round numbers instead of fractions: 1, 2, 5 and 20, for example, instead of 1.20, 2.40, etc. Perhaps the other reason is that this unofficial yet sanctioned exchange rate allows the vendors to earn a bit more. Nevertheless, I believe that once the embargo is lifted, the system of currency in Cuba will become more simplified.

The incentive for dishonesty and deception with respect to currency exchange is clear: just a few CUCs represent the monthly salary of an entire family. A good salary for a Cuban is 450 Cuban pesos– the equivalent of 19 CUC. It’s not hard to understand, then, why the driver of a private car for hire might take advantage of the ignorance of his passengers– and the perceived depth of their pockets–when charging them more for a trip from Point A to Point B than he’d charge from Point B to Point A when the distance is exactly the same.

The ideal place to change money is in banks or in authorized exchange bureaus, known in Cuba as CADECAS. CADECAs can be found throughout Havana and other provinces, as well as in hotels.

As incredible as it may seem, it’s not uncommon for tourists in Havana to be approached by a local who offers to change their money for them. I’d recommend, however, that you not take them up on the offer; money exchange outside of banks and CADECAs is not an authorized activity, and can end up causing you and the local problems. On more than one occasion, the tourist will receive one Cuban peso for every CUC he changes. In such cases, your money is lost and you’ll have no right or recourse to reclaim it. For this reason, I strongly suggest that you change your money in small denominations at CADECAs, being sure to ask for both currencies (CUC and Cuban pesos), as both are acceptable forms of payment throughout Cuba.

Although traveling in Cuba is safe compared to many other places in Latin America, it’s preferable if you travel with people you know or trusted friends until you’re confident enough to get around on your own.

Good luck!

Llegar de un pais a otro presenta un sin numero de problemas logisticos: acomodacion, transportacion, seguridad, costumbres, etc. Llegar a La Habana, Cuba especialmente envuelve algo mas que esto como por ejemplo, el cambio de monedas, precios, y formas de pago. Cuba, con su CUC (Cuba Unidad Convertible) como se le denomina por sus siglas o simplemente “convertibles,” envuelve una ciencia aparte no muy facil de decifrar en una semana o dos. Navegar por este laberinto de transaciones es de por si una tarea muy cubana y ardua a la vez.

Recientemente unos amigos mios Alemanes querian tener esa experiencia de viajeros primerisos de comprar en el mercado de frutas y vegetales frescos. En la pizarra aparecia “guayabas 5 pesos por libra.” Ellos compraron 2 libras de estas deliciosas y aromaticas frutas, pagando 10 CUC por este producto. En realidad pagaron $240 pesos cubanos, el equivalente a mas de un sueldo mensual para un Cubano.

Cada moneda de 1 CUC equivale a $24 pesos cubanos. Cada CUC se divide en monedas de $0.25, $0.10 y $0.05 para facilitar su cambio en transaciones pequenas, muy parecido al dolar en su unidad fraccionaria de cambio. Mis amigos aunque sabian su equivalencia en el cambio no se imaginaron nunca que en los mercados nacionales el pago es en moneda nacional (peso) y no en CUC (Moneda Convertible).

La moneda nacional Cubana (el peso) genera en sentido general confusión para los turistas ya que se parecen al CUC al cambiarse en monedas pequenas. Todo esto sin tomar en cuenta que tenemos un complicado sistema de pago que solo se aprenderá con la experiencia de vivir en Cuba. El peso es la moneda con la cual el gobierno paga a los trabajadores. Esta se utiliza para los pagos de actividades diarias: servicios telefónicos, eléctrico, transportes, etc.

Los turistas muchas veces pagan los servicios en CUC cuando deberían pagarlos en pesos cubanos. Muchos cubanos se aprovechan de este desconocimiento para sacar provecho. Esta situación se da mucho en los mercados para consumo nacional.

Este sistema de cambio en el mercado negro tiene otro valor, inclusive para los cubanos. Por ejemplo si te detienes a comprar en un establecimiento para el consumo nacional y solo tienes dinero CUC, el equivalente de este CUC sera de solo $20 pesos cubanos en vez de $24. Complejo verdad? Si, lo es. Ese mismo turista por ejemplo podria pagar por sus guayabas con 1 CUC y le devolverian $10 pesos cubano, en vez de $14 que es el cambio oficial.

Para una mejor idea de este cambio y su equivalencia, aqui esta la tabla de conversiones de CUC a peso cubano en casa de cambio oficia (CADECAS):

1 CUC= $24.00 pesos cubanos
0.25= $6.00
0.10= $2.40
0.05= $1.20

El mercado negro tiene una diferente tarifa de cambio en los mercados de frutas y vegetales. Estos se reflejan en la siguiente tabla de cambio de CUC a peso cubano:

1CUC= $20.00 pesos cubanos
0.25= $5.00
0.10= $2.00
0.05= $1.00

No se cual es la razona para esta diferencia en las tarifas en el mercado negro, pero quizas esta sea por dos razones especificas: una es la facilidad que esta presenta para los vendedores al trabajar con unidades de cambio completa: 1, 2, 5 y 20, en vez de: 1.20, 2.40, etc. Y la otras es por las ganancias que este cambio representa para ellos. Sin embargo creo que una vez las restricciones del bloqueo se levanten se podria simplificar este sistema monetario de cambio.

El incentivo para la deshonestidad van marcado por el hecho de que unos pocos convertibles representa el salario mensual de una familia. Un buen salario llegaria a $450 pesos Cubanos o $19 CUC. Muchas veces una misma carrera en un auto de alquiler privado te cuesta mas en la ida que en la venida, estimando el precio no por la distancia sino por la ignorancia de sus pasajeros y por la profundidad de tu bolsillo.

El lugar ideal para cambiar la moneda a CUC, pesos cubanos, o monedas extranjeras es en los bancos o en las casas de cambio, conocidas por sus siglas como “CADECAS.” Estas se encuentran en diferentes localidades en La Habana y en las provincias, pero mayormente dentro de hoteles.

Por insólito que parezca en La Habana es muy frecuente que alguna persona se le acerque con la intención de cambiarle la moneda. Le recomendaría no hacerlo ya que eso es una actividad delictiva que terminara perjudicandole. En mas de una ocasion el cambio que le harán será de un peso cubano por cada CUC que cambie, robandole de esa manera su dinero sin derecho a reclamo. Mi criterio es que cambie en la CADECA una pequeña cantidad de CUC a pesos cubanos de esa manera ya tienes las dos formas de pagos aceptables para Cuba.

Aunque viajar en Cuba es seguro comparado a otros lugares en latinoamerica, es preferible que lo hagan con personas conocidas o amigos de un amigo hasta que puedas navegar por si solo.

Buena suerte!

How to Plan a Trip to Mexico City

Text & Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo

If you’re a regular visitor to Collazo Projects, you’ll know that Francisco and I lived in Mexico City for about two years between 2007 and the beginning of this year. (We’d live there still if our residency visas had been renewed).

Mexico City is definitely one of my favorite cities in the world–if not my absolute favorite (though I avoid definitive superlatives), and if you ever read David Lida’s fantastic book, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, The Capital of the 21st Century, you’ll understand why.

I’m always happy to accept opportunities to write about Mexico’s capital. It’s an overlooked travel destination, which is a shame, both for travelers and for Mexico. My recent series of articles for TravelMuse explains why the city shouldn’t be left off your top places to visit list, and helps you plan a trip there. The guide includes five articles:

The Resurrection of Mexico City

Mexico City’s Top Cultural Attractions

Mexico City All Night Long

Where to Take a Siesta in Mexico City

Buen Provecho: Top Mexico City Dining

If the articles inspire you to visit or if you need other advice, feel free to leave a comment below!