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Getting on a Plan with Your Finances

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA — New Year's Day is the traditional time for setting resolutions. But make them too lofty or unreasonable and by Valentine's Day, you will wonder what went wrong. GreenPath Debt Solutions trainers Megan Bridgett and Aimee O'Brien, offer up some simple and attainable ways for you to get financial goals in line in the first sixty days of the New Year:

On January 1, when you are still excited about your New Year's resolution, coordinate a family meeting. "It is important to keep all members of the family involved in the decision making process," said Bridgett. For instance, children can help save the family money by simply turning off lights when they are not in use and monitoring cell phone usage and charges.

January 1st-14th: Brainstorm on both your short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals could occur within the next three to six months, and long term could be within the next few years. Try to make sure to keep them SMART:

Specific - Try to be as specific as possible. For instance, if your goal is to "save money," try to make it specific by saying "I want to save money in order to buy a new car."
Measurable - Another tip is to make the goal measurable. One way to do this is to identify an amount that you would like to get to.
Attainable - If goals are not attainable, you will easily be discouraged and will maybe give up.
Realistic - You will want to make sure that you are being realistic. For instance, if I had a goal of "Never eat lunch out while at work," this might not be realistic or possible. But if I changed it to "Eat out lunch once per week while at work," I am far more likely to stick with it.
Timely - Think of a time frame and a deadline for the goal to be accomplished. This will help you to stay focused and motivated.

The month of January: January 1st come up with a projected budget of your monthly expenses, breaking them into different categories: Groceries, clothing, entertainment, dining out, utilities, household bills, debts, etc.

"Then, for the month of January, hold on to every receipt," said O'Brien. Each week, go through the receipts together, and place them in to the different categories that you have identified. Each month, tally up the totals, and compare what you have spent to what you had projected. "People tend to spend ten to twenty percent over what they anticipated and projected spending," said O'Brien. This will help you to identify areas to adjust or cut back.

The month of February: Start making some cutbacks. "Think of areas that you feel you can cut back on, and identify how much you can cut back by," said Bridgett. "Make sure to stay realistic with this and do not cut out everything. Gradually make these changes to keep yourself motivated and excited."

Keep tracking your expenses. Use a notebook and compare at the end of the month. Any money that was saved possibly put in a family bank account. "Share the results with the family, so that they are a part of this accomplishment," said O'Brien. Each month, have another family meeting and celebrate your successes by doing something fun together as a family. This celebration does not have to be expensive. It could be renting a video and having "Movie Night."

Get through the first 60 days of attaining your goals and tracking your progress, and the next 300 days will find you saving, budgeting and tracking your way to financial success in 2011.

12 Ways to Save Calories and Money When Eating Out

by Alexandra Zega

Whether you’re having dinner at a five-star restaurant, lunch at your local diner, or a bite at a fast-food chain, these tips can help you dine out without overeating or overspending.

Saving calories:
Look it up.
Some chains make their nutrition information available on their websites or on menus in states or cities that require it. At those that don’t, ask your server. You can also look up healthier dishes at nearly 60,000 restaurants on the website HealthyDiningFinder.com. (The recommendations don’t take sodium into account, so be sure to check it yourself before choosing).

Find healthier-choice sections on menus. Now available at many restaurants, they tend to have dishes with fewer calories, less saturated fat, and lower (though not necessarily low) sodium.

Decode the lingo. For example, “crispy,” “crunchy,” and “fritto” generally mean fried; “creamy” signals butter, cheese, cream, or all three. Among preparation methods, steamed is healthiest; poached, blackened, broiled, baked, and grilled are also good. With any dish, request that it be prepared with minimal or no oil, and order sauce on the side.

With salads, get dressing on the side. Then lightly dip your fork into it before each bite.

Saving costs:
Bring your own bottle.
If you like drinking wine with dinner, look for “BYOB” nights at restaurants and pay only a corking fee.

Try a prix fixe menu. They offer several courses at a set price, often in the early dinner hours or on off-peak days. Or look for “restaurant week” promotions in your city, which offer multicourse menus at reduced prices.

Let ’em know your age. Many family restaurants have reduced-price menus for older customers, usually defined as 55 and up. Most have lower-priced menus for kids, too, and some have “kids eat free” days.

Sign up for e-mail alerts. If you can tolerate the extra load on your inbox, you’ll be flooded with coupons for free dishes or discounts on whole meals. Filling out a restaurant’s online survey can also yield freebies, as can joining birthday clubs when available.

Saving both:
Split it.
Take advantage of super-sized portions at chain restaurants by sharing them with a dining companion or eating half and boxing the rest for lunch or dinner the next day. Or ask if there’s a half-sized or smaller-portion option for entrées.

Skip appetizers, coffee and dessert. They drive up not just the bill, but the tip, too. For something sweet after a meal, stock healthful desserts at home, like fresh fruit salad, Popsicles, or low-fat frozen yogurt.

Order water to drink. It’s free, has no calories or sugar, and you get unlimited refills.

Order two appetizers instead of a main course. You’ll get more variety, smaller portions, and you may pay less than you would for an entrée.

(c) www.consumerreports.org.

The Art of No-Expense Gift Giving

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA -This year, the average holiday shopper plans to spend $688 on holiday-related expenses, with $518 for gifts alone, according to the National Retail Federation's 2010 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Action Survey.

Whether your budget for the holidays is higher, lower, or right in line with the national averages, you should always try to stay within the limit you set for yourself. If you find you've maxed out this year's gift budget, yet still have people left to check off your gift list, the art of no-expense gifting may be your best option.

Money Management International (MMI) offers insight into the art of no-expense gifting with three ideas that won't put you over your holiday budget.

Give free printable gift certificates. Great gifts don't have to cost a lot of money. Free printable holiday gift certificates allow you to offer an experience or an act of service while still giving the recipient a wrapped gift. Free printable gift certificates are actually great to give all year long.

Give homemade treats. Give your loved ones a heartwarming treat from the oven. Bake homemade sweet bread, gingerbread cookies, or mini raspberry cupcakes. Deliver the treats in festive containers. Your family and friends will be pleasantly surprised with the edible delights. For recipe ideas, download the free Cheap Eats eBook.

Give a regift. A regift is a gift you've received that you pass along to someone else. While there are some cringe-worthy regifting tales, there are also some heartwarming regifting stories. Visit Regiftable.com for ideas and stories that will help you select an appropriate regift that the recipient will appreciate.

While some might argue that no-expense gift gifting is cheap, Cate Williams, vice president of Financial Literacy at MMI, disagrees. "No-expense gifting is really about giving a gift the recipient will value and appreciate," she says. "While not spending money on a gift is frugal, the thought and consideration the gift-giver puts into giving a gift the recipient will appreciate keeps the gift from being cheap."

9 Things That Make Your Property Taxes Rise

by Alexandra Zega

"Nobody understands property taxes!" said Jerry Lynch, a certified financial planner and owner of JFL Consulting in Fairfield, NJ. "The code is 80,000 pages! And that's just federal. Then you look at the local codes - each town could be different, each county could be different. Few people have a decent understanding of what they're paying."

And, while property taxes are supposed to rise and fall with home values, it's not uncommon that even when the economy is still circling the drain that property taxes rise.

As a result, homeowners often feel like they were clubbed over the head in a smoky room when they find out their property taxes went up. And with some states assessing - and raising - property taxes every year, that can leave a lot of pent-up frustration.

Two things determine property taxes: The assessed value of a home and the property tax rate for that town or county.

Of course, within that, there are a million moving parts and any number of things that can result in higher taxes.

Here are nine things that make your property taxes go up:

1. State and local budget cuts. Part of the revenue collected from property taxes is used to fund the public school system, library, fire department and other essential services. So, when states cut their funding in those areas, the money's got to come from somewhere - and that usually means homeowners.

"In many cases, the shortfalls come from property taxes," explained Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.

This is one of the biggest reasons why, even in an economic downturn and housing-market crash like the one we just experienced, property taxes can rise.

And, little of that is in the homeowners' control: Aside from voting for elected officials, the only thing homeowners can vote on is the school budget, Lynch adds.

"With property taxes, public officials basically argue that they can repeal the law of gravity as far as the economy goes!" Sepp said.

2. Increases in public employee benefits. The average government employee has benefits that are 45 percent higher than their private-sector counterparts, according to the Labor Department, and thanks to unions and other legally-binding agreements, wages, pensions and health-care benefits are continually rising, even when the nation is in a recession and states can't cover the costs. As a result, homeowners are tapped to make up the difference with property taxes.

"Property taxes are the No. 1 revenue source for most jurisdictions," explained Guy Cecala, the publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance magazine. "If everybody's cash-strapped, that's the easiest one to adjust."

3. Adding a bathroom. There are a lot of family homes out there that only have one bathroom. Homeowners figure if they add a bathroom it will not only increase the harmony in their home but also increase the value of their home when they go to sell it. That may be true but remember that your property taxes are calculated based on the value of your home, so if you've increased its value, you've now increased your taxes as well.

So how will the assessor know if he or she doesn't come inside the house? In a word - permits. You need a permit to do any plumbing, electrical or major construction work in your house and it's not uncommon for a tax assessor to check if any permits were filed when assessing the value of the home.

"They check building permits often," said Edward Mermelstein, a real-estate attorney in New York.

This is why some people try to sneak by without requesting a permit but that's a can of worms you don't want to open - it will create huge headaches when you go to sell the house.

4. Renovating the kitchen. It's easy to talk yourself into a pricey kitchen reno because kitchens are what sell homes, right? "When it comes to home renovations, the most bang for your buck is always kitchen renovations," said Heidi Majerik, the director of development at Forest City Enterprises. And, if you do it now, you figure that you can enjoy it for a while - not just the next owners. Well guess who else will be enjoying that granite countertop, mosaic backsplash and cherry cabinets? The tax man!

Even if you don't knock down a wall and expand the square footage of the kitchen, you're still improving the "condition" of the home by upgrading from that cracked Formica and granny cabinetry. And the "condition," be it poor, fair, good or excellent, factors into the assessed value of your home and therefore your tax bill. A tax assessor can find out about a kitchen renovation in one of two ways: Either by doing an internal walk-through for the assessment, which can sometimes happen, or, like with the bathroom, through any permits you've filed.

Never underestimate the "condition" and it's contribution to your tax bill.

In certain areas, that can mean a differential of more than just a few percentage points, which can translate into more than a few dollars," Mermelstein said.

5. Converting the garage into living space. So, you want to bring your in-laws to live with you. You figure that you'll save money by not paying for a pricey senior living center - and by not adding to the footprint, the square footage, of your home, by converting the garage into an extra bedroom or apartment for them. Not to mention, it'll put some distance between you and them! That may be true, but you've now increased the "livable" space of the home, and in most states, that's going to increase the value - and the taxes. Florida is among the exceptions: Any improvement made to help take care of a dependent doesn't increase a home's property taxes there, Sepp explained.

6. A shed or deck. Even improvements to the outside such as sheds and decks add value to your home. In some states, a shed is only considered an addition of the square footage if it has a concrete floor, but often, it's going to be classified as an improvement to the home, the home's value - and your tax bill.

7. A garden. Flowers and vegetables may seem unassuming but they can sneakily also increase your property taxes through what they call an "alteration of land improvement," Sepp explains.

8. Imaginary fireplaces. It's always recommended that you appeal your tax assessment - or at least review the assessment with the tax assessor. First, if they don't do an interior review of the home, but they see you took a permit out for, say that kitchen reno, they'll probably estimate the value of the renovation based on other renovations in the area, Mermelstein said. And if your neighbors used higher-end materials than you did, that guesstimate is going to be too high and inflate your tax bill. And remember there's always the possibility for human error. When my husband and I met with our tax assessor recently, we discovered he'd put us down for a fireplace that we don't have, which, he said, inflated the value of the home by $5,000! If we didn't appeal, we would've been paying taxes on that imaginary $5,000 fireplace.

"Human error is typical," Mermelstein said.

9. A golf course. The location of your land is an important component of your home's valuation and taxes. If you live close to town or a pretty lake, that's going to mean higher taxes. Pay attention to local construction. In the same way that construction of a new highway or chemical plant close to a home can dent its value, the addition of a golf course, lake or other amenity can boost the value of a home - and the tax bill.

"Property taxes are really a double-edged sword," said Brian Fennelly, the chief financial officer of Forest City. "You want the value of your property to go up but that also makes your taxes go up."

"If you really want your property taxes to go down, participate in your public process," he suggests. When you cast your vote for elected officials, make sure you know their tax position and take advantage of the opportunity to vote on your school budget.

And never, ever underestimate the value of being nice to your tax assessor!

If there's an in-home assessment, offer him or her a drink. Treat the person like your honored guest - and that may help alleviate any exaggerations of what "excellent" condition your home is in.

"It's good to have a personal relationship with an assessor," Mermelstein said. "If you do want to make some sort of argument through an appeal, you want them to remember you - in a good way," he said.

Always appeal. Not only will it save you money on your tax bill but also prospective buyers will appreciate it when you tell them that you've challenged your assessment and it's as low as it can be, Sepp said.

"Today, most municipalities and governments are looking for any source of revenue," Mermelstein cautioned. "Assessors definitely have an incentive to get as much revenue from any assessment as possible."

And when you appeal, don't be afraid to "talk down" your home to the assessor. That does work, Sepp said. "Why pay more taxes on a roof with a leak when you can argue that it's sub-standard?" he said. Not just your roof but if the lot is badly graded with poor drainage, if the foundation has a crack, etc. You'll have to disclose all that stuff to prospective buyers anyway, so better to save money on it now with the tax man!

Know the rules of appealing ahead of time: Often, you can only do it once a year and within a certain window of time.

Make sure you catch that window so you don't have to pay an extra year of higher taxes. Plus, time any renovations or improvements for after the assessment. As they say, pay no tax before it's time!

(c) Cindy Perman, CNBC.com

A Good Host Thinks of the Little Things

by Alexandra Zega


To be an excellent host, try becoming a picky guest. In your own home.

Give your guest quarters — even if that means the sofa — a test run for an evening or two each year.

Don't hit the pre-holidays panic button yet. You still have a few weeks to make sure your home provides enough comfort and joy for family and friends who will spend a few nights or (gulp) weeks with you.

"Being a guest in your home is a great idea because as nice and tricked out as your guest bedroom may be, there are things you don't notice unless you spend a little time there," says Sarah Gray Miller, editor in chief of Country Living magazine. "Like perhaps there's no place for guests to set a dopp kit. Or it would be good to put an extra chair in there so guests can sit down and put on their shoes. Add any of the things you'd want if you were staying somewhere."

Miller takes a few cues (and travel-sized toiletries) from hotels: unused shampoo and soap, water glasses and plenty of towels and toilet paper. And her guest room has a hair dryer and an iron — travelers don't want to pack those in weight-restricted suitcases. But you'll never spot slippers and robes in her guest rooms.

"I'd feel nervous by all that overdoing, like the host isn't relaxed," Miller says. "It's a hard balance to strike between anticipating guests' needs and not paying so much attention to the details that you make people feel uncomfortable."

The key is making sure the sleeping quarters are comfortable, says Nancy Miller Reichle, who with her husband, Mark, runs Southmoreland on the Plaza Urban Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Kansas City, Mo.

"Some people are hot sleepers, and some people are cold sleepers," Reichle says. "So it's good to have a variety of covers such as a light blanket and a heavier duvet."

Reichle also likes having extra pillows because some people use them under their backs or knees. There are four down pillows on the beds and two fiber-filled pillows in the closets in her guest rooms.

So what about air mattresses if you don't have enough beds? You know, the inflatable ones that look like oversized swim toys.

"I'm not a fan when two people have to sleep on them," Miller says. "One person always ends up bouncing off and sleeping on the floor. But they're OK when you're sleeping alone."

Kids' bedrooms can work for guests (younger children think it's fun to camp out on Mom and Dad's floor a few nights). Just as long as the room is clean and straightened for guests.

"No popcorn or crayons in the bed or on the floor," Reichle says. "No one wants that."

Regardless of the location in the home or type of mattress, all accommodations should be made up before guests arrive. So should a meal plan.

"Besides asking how long they're staying, we always ask our guests — including personal houseguests — if there are any dietary restrictions like allergies or if they're vegetarians," Reichle says. "We ask them things they like to drink or eat. Maybe they prefer decaf coffees and sodas. Or skim milk instead of 2 percent. That way they can help themselves."

Reichle also puts bottles of water and snacks such as chocolates and granola bars in the room because guests might be afraid they're going to make noise if they get a midnight case of the munchies.

Miller fills glass canisters with mixed party nuts, crackers, pretzels and cookies so guests can help themselves during the day while she's at work. She also sets out wine on a sideboard and a cooler of sodas and water for guests.

"Guests feel comfortable taking things that are out in the open," Miller says. "They don't want to have to ask hosts for anything. Not even for a Diet Coke. They'll feel like they're intruding."

If you're not going out for dinner, Miller recommends one-pot meals such as chili or lasagna. Or if it's warm enough, throw burgers, steaks and veggies on the grill. She keeps it simple at breakfast time, too — no seven-course brunches.

"I don't over-twirl it up," Miller says. "I keep it very help-yourself. That way, guests feel like they can sleep in and get ready at their own pace."

Miller and Reichle advocate taking guests on a quick tour of the house, showing them where the coffee and drinks are and how to adjust the heat, doing a quick show-and-tell about working the remote and digital video recorder and pointing out quirks such as the noisy train that passes by (the foam ear plugs are on the nightstand).

"One of the most important things is telling your guests they can use your computer," Reichle says. "They want to check their flights, e-mail messages, tourist attractions and restaurant information."

Lots of people travel with laptops and most of us have cell phones, so provide a power strip or enough outlets in the bedroom for them to charge their electronic devices.

"It may sound silly, but it's also good to give guests a rundown of the daily agenda, like what time you're leaving for work, what time you'll be back and what dinner plans are," Reichle says. "Otherwise, it's discombobulating for people. It gives the guests some control so they can go off and do their own exploring."

(c) 2010, Stacy Downs,The Kansas City Star.

5 Holiday Shopping Traps to Avoid

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA — Finding the right gift at the right price can be challenging, especially during the holiday season when deep discounts and door-buster sales abound. A recent issue of Consumer Reports highlights five traps holiday shoppers can avoid.

"Knowing how to navigate sales, comparison shop, and cut through salespeople jargon is half the battle to stress-free holiday shopping," said Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports. "Shoppers need to take precautionary measures before purchasing gifts to make sure they are getting the right product, for the right price, with no strings attached."

Five Holiday Shopping Traps to Avoid

1. Deep discount come-ons. "Door-buster" sales promise big savings. Consumer Reports found an electric percolator "on-sale" at Kohl's stores and Kohls.com for $61.99, a discount from the regular $69.99. But those prices are higher than the $59.99 manufacturer's suggested retail price. Retailers, especially discount stores, commonly sell below MSRP. Using a Web search, Consumer Reports found better deals. The best price was $30.03 plus $8.21 shipping at Salestores.com.

What to do? Comparison shop before buying and don't worry about missing a sale, it's likely that another one will come around before the season ends.

2. Gift-card gotchas. New federal rules for gift cards limit issuers' ability to charge certain fees and impose expiration dates. Inactivity and service fees can be charged only if a card hasn't been used for at least one year. But issuers can still charge fees to buy cards, as they do for bank-issued variety, those that bear a credit-card logo. For example, expect to pay $3 to $7 for an American Express gift card. Also, gift cards are not protected if an issuer goes bankrupt. If that's the case, the card could be worthless.

Beyond that, many people never get around to spending their gift cards. A quarter of people surveyed by Consumer Reports in October 2009 who received gift cards the previous year said they hadn't redeemed their almost one year-old cards.

What to do? Give cash or a check. Cash never expires and is good anywhere. If the check is never cashed, the money stays in your bank account.

3. Extended-warranty pitches. Salespeople push service plans because retailers keep 50 percent or more of what they charge for them, but they are notoriously bad deals. Some repairs are already covered by the standard warranty that comes automatically with the product. Consumer Reports' data shows that products seldom break within the extended-warranty window of coverage, when items do break, the repairs, on average, cost about the same as the warranty.

What to do? Some credit cards automatically extend the manufacturer's warranty on anything purchased with them, so check the card's website. Even if the warranty expired, check with the retailer or manufacturer, which might choose or be legally obligated to repair and make good on a product that prematurely fails or otherwise shows signs of a defect.

4. Return-policy limitations. Some retailers relax their return policies during the holiday season, but don't count on it and always learn the rules before buying. Some companies have different return policies for in-store, online, or mail-order purchases.

What to do?
Keep the receipt and let the recipient know the return policy. If the store provides a special gift receipt, include that with your gift.

5. Restocking fees. Many items, especially electronics and special orders, are subject to restocking fees that range from 10–25 percent if they are not returned in a factory-sealed box.

What to do?
Don't open the package unless you're sure you want the item inside. Items such as computer software, music CDs, and movie DVDs generally aren't returnable if the seal is broken. If a fee is charged, try to negotiate a partial refund, but never pay a fee if the item is defective.

A Cheat Sheet for Holiday Tipping

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA — How much should you plan to tip your housecleaner, child-care provider or hairdresser this holiday season? The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey earlier this year—when memories of holiday tips were fresh—to find out.

Despite the recession, respondents who did tip spent at about the same rate as in years past. The highest median tip was $35, for the category of cleaning people, with a few service providers receiving thank-yous as high as $500. If you plan on offering gifts of thanks this holiday season, take these tips from Consumer Reports:

• Give cash equal to the value of one session or a week's wage to self-employed or lower-wage earners.
• Gift cards can be useful for tipping mail carriers. They aren't supposed to accept cash, but can accept gift cards valued at $20 or less that can't be exchanged for cash. Otherwise, you might want to avoid gift cards because of their fees.
• Be sure that food gifts won't trigger an allergic reaction or violate dietary restrictions.
• If you're keeping to a tight budget and can't afford to tip this year, consider writing a heartfelt note of thanks instead.

RISMEDIA — Amid the holly and jolly, don't forget to be nice and not naughty when it comes to recycling during the holiday season.

Presents, decorations and party supplies can make for a not-so-Earth-friendly holiday season. But Ben Champion, Kansas State University director of sustainability, says it's possible to celebrate and still be mindful of the environment.

"If you're going to consume, then do so conscientiously," Champion said. "Know what you are buying."

Champion offers several tips for an eco-friendly, yet still merry, holiday season:

• While many companies are trying to go green by reducing packaging—a good thing to be sure—what a gift is made of matters just as much. Paying attention to recyclability, energy use and materials that didn't cause environmental damage in their production is important. Look for trusted environmental certifications, and be sure to check your local recycler to see what materials they do recycle.

• Paper products are the easiest to recycle, as long as they don't have chemical coatings. Glossy paper decorations and wrapping paper are often not easily recycled because their coloring and designs are made of complicated chemicals. Some decorations or wrapping papers do use soy inks or other natural dyes, making them more recyclable. Buy wrapping paper and packaging that can be recycled, and then make sure to recycle them when finished.

• Plain, corrugated cardboard is best for containing presents because it's also easy to recycle. Plastic materials—especially No. 1 and No. 2 plastics—are the easiest plastics to recycle.

• Some alternatives to presents include a gift certificate or a donation to an organization in the name of the receiver. "The best way to save waste is to not buy presents that make waste," Champion said. "You can always just buy something that is going to last a long time so that it won't have to be thrown away."

• Products such as fair-trade, organic or locally made products can make one-of-a kind presents that may not require as much packaging for shipping.

• If mailing presents, try using biodegradable packing peanuts or newspapers, instead of non-recyclable packing materials.

• Disposable plates, cups and utensils can easily accumulate at holiday parties. Instead of using foam or plastic dishware, try either reusable or biodegradable, disposable dishware and utensils. While biodegradable dishes can't be recycled when they have food particles or food stains, many biodegradable dishes can be composted along with a lot of food scraps. Exploring how to compost is another way to green your living.

• Buying local food products—although they can be more expensive—provides a more eco-friendly option because smaller local farms tend to offer more customized products and can be less chemical intensive. "If it's a special occasion, you may be willing to pay that extra amount," Champion said. "You'll have something that everyone can appreciate together. It's often better quality, and I like the taste of organic and heritage foods better."

• But perhaps most important is to focus more on the season and less on material goods. "I would recommend spending our time and money not necessarily on buying stuff, but on enjoying each other's company," Champion said.

11 Ways to Save on Airfare in Any Season

by Alexandra Zega

Yes, fares on many routes are much more expensive this holiday season than last, but airfares are not static and there are (relative) deals to be had any time of year. Here is Airfarewatchdog.com's best advice for making your airfare dollars go further, no matter what the time of year.

1. Sign up for the airlines' email feeds and frequent flyer programs
We know, you already get too much e-mail, but the airlines want to develop a one-on-one relationship with you, so they'll send you special deals, such as 50 percent off promo codes or two-fers, if you sign up. Airline sites sell much more than airfares these days (hotels, rental cars, credit cards and such), and they will entice you to deal direct rather than use a third party site such as Orbitz. If you're on Twitter, you might also want to follow the airlines' tweets, which they're using to promote exclusive Twitter-only deals.

2. Sign up for third-party fare alerts
Many airfare websites offer alerts, and they all have something to offer. Yapta.com lets you track your specific itinerary, down to the flight number and dates of travel, and will let you know if the airline owes you a price-drop refund. Travelocity's easy-to-use FareWatcherPlus lets you track up to ten routes and you can choose to be notified either when a fare goes down by $25 or more, or when it goes below a price you choose. Orbitz also offers alerts, as does Bing Travel, TripAdivsor.com/flights and FareCompare.com.

3. Search airline sites individually, but not exclusively
As noted above, many airlines have "private" sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. These are different from promo code fares. International airlines such as Aer Lingus, Iberia and Qantas regularly offer lower fares (i.e., $100-$400 less) on their own websites compared to what you'll find on Kayak or Orbitz. And yet, you shouldn't ignore online travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity, because these sites will tell you if it's cheaper flying out on one airline and back on another. In general, airline sites want you to fly only on their "metal."

4. Buy hotel plus air packages
It's often significantly cheaper to buy an air plus hotel package rather than airfare alone, especially for last minute travel. We often see Travelocity "TotalTrip" offerings, especially on last minute flights, pop up with hotel plus air for half the price of air alone. Lastminute.com is also a great source for finding last minute packages.

5. Use Priceline for last-minute trips
If you don't have a 7-, 14-, or 21-day advance purchase window to buy your fare, your best bet is the "name your own price" feature of Priceline.com. True, you won't know the exact flight times or airline you're flying until to pay for your trip, but you can save 50 percent or more. Hotwire.com can also be useful for last minute trips.

6. Use consolidators, but beware of the restrictions
Especially with the economic downturn, business and first class cabins will be emptier in 2010, and deals will be amazing. Consolidators specializing in premium cabins will have some great deals, and the airlines themselves will be heavily discounting their premium cabins, so check the specials on their websites. Sites like Vayama.com, airfare.com and Asia.com also sometimes sell consolidator fares.

7. Use a flexible date search
True, many people are not flexible in their travel dates, but would you fly in a different month or a day or two earlier or later to save hundreds of bucks? If so, learn how to do a flexible travel date search on airline and third-party sites.

8. Consider the extra fees before you buy
If Southwest has a fare of $198 round-trip and United has one for $148, and you are checking three bags, then Southwest actually has the lowest fare because Southwest charges nothing for the first two checked bags, whereas United would charge you an additional $165 each way for three.

9. Combine two separate fares rather than buying one fare
If you're flying to a destination in Europe, you might save money by purchasing one fare from the U.S. to, say, Dublin, and another from Dublin onward on Ryanair.com (just beware of Ryanair's rather onerous fees). Same holds true for some destinations in Asia (fly into Singapore and catch a low-cost carrier such as Airasia.com from there) and to some smaller Caribbean destinations via San Juan or the Bahamas. Even domestically, two fares are often less than one, such as the recent scenario where Dallas to Honolulu was selling for $350 round-trip with tax, but Houston/Honolulu was $800. As you're no doubt aware, you can fly Houston-Dallas for a lot less than $450!

10. Buy tickets on an airline that will refund the difference if a fare goes down
Let's say you've found the lowest fare, and then the day after purchase your non-refundable fare for the same itinerary goes down. If you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference. But some airlines will charge you a costly "administrative" fee of $150 or more, wiping out any savings. Others will give you the entire fare difference without extracting a fee. Currently, the "nice" airlines are JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska.

11. Check fares several times a day, and don't listen to airfare pundits who predict airfares
A lot of people like to pretend they're clairvoyant, and they know where airfares are headed. But airlines are unpredictable creatures, and any airfare expert who claims he or she knows that airfares will be lower or higher in the coming months or the coming day is suspect. No one can accurately predict where airfares are heading, any more than we can predict the stock market, because we have no idea when the economy will improve, or how much airlines will cut back capacity, or when the next flu epidemic will hit. If we could, we'd all be comfortably retired by now! Fares fluctuate throughout the day, and the number of seats offered at the lowest fares also changes frequently. So if you don't like the fare at 10 a.m., check at 2 p.m. or the next day and you may be surprised.

(c) 2010, Airfarewatchdog.com., George Hobica

Is Your Health on the Line?

by Alexandra Zega
Unless you've had your cell phone permanently glued to your ear, chances are you've heard the recent health buzz: Mobile devices may cause cancer. While it's true that the National Cancer Institute has ruled them safe, a growing number of independent researchers disagree.

Those experts point out that the FCC wireless regulations on cell phone safety are largely based on something called specific absorption rate (SAR) levels, or the rate at which our bodies absorb radiation. Most phones do comply with the federal standards, but SAR monitors only thermal effects. (In other words, if the radiation from your phone isn't cooking your brain, it's regarded as safe.) But mounting scientific evidence suggests that nonthermal radio frequency radiation (RF)—the invisible energy waves that connect cell phones to cell towers, and power numerous other everyday items—can damage our immune systems and alter our cellular makeup, even at intensities considered safe by the FCC.

"The problem is that RF can transfer energy waves into your body and disrupt its normal functioning," explains Cindy Sage, an environmental consultant in Santa Barbara, California, who has studied radiation for 28 years. "Here's why that's crucial: Overwhelming evidence shows that RF can cause DNA damage, and DNA damage is a necessary precursor to cancer."

The 2010 Interphone study, the largest to date on RF exposure from mobile phones, has spawned a quagmire of controversy, says health researcher and medical writer Kerry Crofton, Ph.D., who spent four years reviewing RF science for her book Wireless Radiation Rescue: Safeguarding Your Family from the Risks of Electro-Pollution. Many groups, including the National Cancer Institute and the telecom industry, read the results of that study as a green light for wireless calling. Others, like Crofton, point out that because it was largely based on lower cellphone usage in the '90s, the research has little bearing on today's world, in which 285 million Americans have mobile phones and 83 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are "wired" all the time and sleep with their cell phones next to their heads.

One thing the Interphone study did find? People who chatted via cell for just 30 minutes a day for 10 years saw their risk of glioma (the type of brain tumor that killed Ted Kennedy) rise 40 percent. As a result, many European countries are considering banning cell phones for children under age 6 (RF penetrates little kids' brains more easily), and France has already banned all wireless technology in some schools and many public places, notes physician and epidemiologist Samuel Milham, M.D., a leader in the growing field of electromagnetic research.

All parties agree on this: More studies need to be done. In the meantime, it's best to take easy precautions—and not just with mobile phones. "Never before in human history have we gone from one radiated environment to another," says Crofton. "We're going to wireless offices and living in wireless homes. Even beaches and parks are going wireless. We're exposed everywhere."

The good news is that you don't need to ditch your gadgets. This advice will let you stay plugged in—and keep you healthy.

Cell Phones

When your phone is on (which it probably is even as you read this) it's constantly sending and receiving RF signals to and from the nearest cell tower to keep you in service. The farther you are from a tower, the harder your phone has to work and the more RF it emits, explains David Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the University at Albany. The activity really amps up when you're, say, driving through rural areas. Plus, within the close confines of a car, your entire core is exposed to the radiation.

The safer solution: Keep your phone off when driving until you really need it, says Carpenter. And no matter where you are, avoid holding a cell phone directly to your noggin (the Interphone study showed gliomas were more prevalent on the side of the head people continuously pressed phones to), always keep it at least six inches or more from your body (in your purse, not your pocket), and use either speakerphone or a corded headset (not a wireless headset). Or text up a storm. If you have a smartphone that's loaded with games, music, and movies, turn your wireless settings off while playing or rocking out. Similarly, don't ever use your cell phone as a bedside alarm clock without first disabling the wireless mode.

Cordless Phones

These stealth wireless threats "have become so powerful, they're often as strong as cell phones," says Sage. "The phone base is like a mini cell tower. It radiates 24-7 and can have a range of up to 300 feet." Particularly suspect are digital enhanced cordless telecommunication (DECT) phones. Preliminary blind studies have found that, when sitting beside a DECT phone base, some people experienced arrhythmia, a troubling heartbeat irregularity that could eventually lead to stroke or coronary disease, says Sage.

The safer solution: You might feel somewhat retro, but "just get a corded phone with an extra-long cord so you can still walk around," says Crofton. "They're better, they're cheaper, and they work in a power outage. Every time you replace a DECT with a corded phone, you're cutting the RF levels in your home significantly."

Wireless Routers

Your neighborhood coffee shop's wireless Internet access may often seem like a godsend, but the router that's needed to provide the service is continuously emitting high levels of RF (up to 200 feet out), and that constant exposure has been linked to deadly diseases. "If the whole body is radiated by a router's RF emissions, the greatest concern is cancer, especially leukemia," says Carpenter. Also, be aware of your at-home router and any plug-in wireless USB cards you often use.

The safer solution: Ditch your wireless router and plug your computer directly into a cable modem, says Sage. That Ethernet technology doesn't leak RF and is often faster and more secure. If you just can't give up your wireless router (e.g., if you live in a home with a handful of computer users), make sure you sit as far away from it as possible, says Crofton, and turn it off at night and whenever you're not online. Another easy fix: Plug your router into a surge protector with a timer, and set it to go off each night so you don't have to remember to flip the switch.

Laptops

"When you hold your laptop on your lap, what you're essentially doing is radiating your pelvis," says Carpenter, "so all the cancers that affect that area are of concern." Indeed, early studies point to a heightened risk of testicular cancer for men who keep RF-emitting devices close to their belts. For women, adds Carpenter, "the studies aren't quite there yet, but I think we can say that anything that might cause cancer almost always causes birth defects, so pregnant women—or those wanting to become pregnant soon—should take extra precautions."

The safer solution: Keep your laptop off your lap (if you have to rest it there, buffer it with a sturdy pillow that's at least six inches thick). Try to use a desktop computer at home and treat your laptop as an on-the-go convenience. One thing to keep in mind: Laptops are a high RF radiation risk only while connected to wireless Internet, so when you're watching a DVD, fiddling around with your photos, or writing that dissertation, just disable your connection and you'll be much safer.

Baby Monitors

"Baby monitors release more RF than cell phones do, and putting them next to a crib is very, very unwise," says Carpenter. He points to a recent University of Utah study that shows RF radiation can penetrate almost entirely through a child's brain, which doesn't form completely until nearly 20 years of age. "It's very clear from all the existing research that the younger the child is, the more vulnerable he or she is to the effects of RF radiation."

The safer solution: Consider not using a baby monitor. If you absolutely must use one, place it far from your baby's crib—at least 10 to 15 feet away.

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