Category: Travel

A Review Of HotelsCombined: A Hotel Search Engine For Hotel Booking Sites

hotelscombined review

Hotel booking sites are generally a cluster of links, rates, and options that are often more overwhelming than useful. Eventually you stumble on to a hotel with a decent rating and low rate, simply to end the laborious search process. Although sites like Airbnb have really optimized the user search experience, there are many trips where renting an apartment or getting a hostel dorm over a hotel doesn’t make sense.

HotelsCombined recently partnered with me to get my thoughts on using their site and what benefits it might have for travelers.

What Is It?

HotelsCombined is a hotel booking site. Basically, as you’re probably familiar with already, they comb other hotel booking sites to offer you a wide variety of deals. Something of a hotel search engine of search engines, with the goal being to provide you with the lowest hotel rates by casting the net wider than its competitors.

hotelscombined search results

Clearly they’ve focused on finding you the best variety of rates over having the best user interface – but as painful as it can be to search for hotels online, HotelsCombined does a good job of reducing the amount of time you need to find a good place to stay at a low rate.

Strong Search

I spent a few hours going through comparisons with HotelsCombined and other major booking sites, many of which are part of HotelsCombined search results. (HotelsCombined also doesn’t have any annoying popups so common with similar aggregators.) In nearly all cases, they had comparable rates. So, for example, the same hotel room for the same dates turned up practically the same price on Booking.com as it did on HotelsCombined’s Booking.com search result.

The benefit to HotelsCombined is it’s able to save you time in finding the lowest rate for a particular room by looking at hundreds of providers, including these 20 popular sites. Ideally, HotelsCombined wants to be the only place you need to go to find the right hotel room for your next trip. Throughout the time I was using HotelsCombined, I couldn’t find a good reason why it shouldn’t be.

Features For The Frugal

HotelsCombined also offers a “Price Alert” feature where you’ll be sent an email notification when the price of a specific hotel booking you’re interested in falls below 10%. You need to register for the feature; probably something travelers who plan more in advance will want to consider. On the other hand, if you’re like me and a little more last minute, downloading their free app might be an even bigger time saver.

A smoother interface with a more simple design (dare I say less options) that just shows your the lowest price, amenities, and ratings, would be my personal preference but until that’s the norm, HotelsCombined at least reduces the amount of time you need to spend searching for the right hotel room for your personal needs and budget.

How American Expats Can Lower (Or Eliminate) Their Taxes Back Home

This is a guest post by Olivier Wagner, a Certified Public Accountant, U.S. immigrant, expat, and perpetual traveler who preaches the philosophy of being a worldly American. In his new book, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans, he uses his expertise to show you how to use 100% legal strategies (beyond traditionally maligned “tax havens”) to keep your income and assets safe from the IRS. Oliver has also written recently what you need to know about taxes if you’re an American who moves abroad.

us passport money

Most Americans living abroad today know about the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) (Form 2555). The FEIE lets you remove up to $101,300 of foreign income from your taxable income when filing taxes back home. This is great news for U.S. citizens who stay outside the country all year and don’t make six figures annually; as it legally allows you to avoid paying any taxes to the United States. However, to take advantage of it, you must be careful to claim things the right way on your tax return.

Choosing Between The FTC And FEIE

You can also claim a credit for any taxes you have paid to foreign governments through the Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) (Form 1116). This is very useful if you are a resident or worker in another country. However, you have to choose between using either the FTC or the FEIE to lower your taxes – you can’t take advantage of both.

  • Generally, if your foreign tax rate is greater than your U.S. tax rate, the FTC will save you more.

If you have children who are also American citizens, you can get a refundable tax credit of $1,000 per year per child with the Additional Child Tax credit. To qualify, you must have at least $3,000 of income and not use the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans

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My friend Laura from Ohio used to work as a self-employed English teacher in Milan. Because she would spend the entire tax year in Italy (and made much less than the $101,300 FEIE limit), she qualified for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion each year when she filed her American taxes.

However, there is one other requirement you must meet in order to use the FEIE. You must pass either the Bona Fide Residence Test or the Physical Presence Test. Although you only need to qualify using one of the two, having both provides a safety net. If you are ever audited and you fail one test, you can simply provide another Form 2555 using the other test.

How To Pass The Bona Fide Residence Test

This is a somewhat fancy phrase that explained Laura’s situation perfectly. A bona fide resident is someone who has legitimately established residency in a foreign country. Although she was abroad in Italy for an undetermined, potentially indefinite period of time, Ohio still saw her as a resident for tax purposes until she proved otherwise.

In order to use this test to qualify for the FEIE, she just had to remain a tax resident of Italy for an uninterrupted tax year. Even if a country doesn’t have an income tax system, so long as they would otherwise have authority to tax you, you qualify as a “tax resident”. She also must not have submitted a statement to Italy that she was a non-resident there. She could not be living in Italy as a tourist.

lisbon portugal

Every other tie to the country counts and the Bona Fide Residence test is inherently subjective. If you are unsure, I would not recommend claiming it. I advise that you use the Physical Presence test or the Foreign Tax Credit instead.

How To Pass The Physical Presence Test

Alternatively, Laura also could have qualified for the FEIE using the Physical Presence Test. To pass this test, a person must spend at least 330 days outside the US in any 12-month period.

Each of those 330 days must be an entire 24 hours. I once had a client of mine tell me, “Well, of course I can use the Physical Presence Test. I live in Canada year-round.” Then he said, “I only return to the States once a week to fill up on gas.” Oops. Those quick little trips meant he was only out of the country for 6/7ths of the year, or 312 days – not quite enough to pass the Physical Presence Test.

Additional Exceptions To The 24 Hour Rule

  • Being in the U.S. for less than 24 hours while in transit between two foreign countries.
  • Being in international waters for less than 24 hours in transit between two foreign countries. International waters do not count as a foreign country (hence, time spent there does not count toward the 330 days). Likewise, time spent in Cuba in violation of the embargo does not count toward the 330 days.

Since Laura was living in Italy for the entire year, she passed these tests as well.

Filing The FEIE On Your Tax Return

The FEIE can be claimed on either Form 2555-EZ or Form 2555. As a tax professional, I usually use Form 2555, but if you’re preparing your own return, you might enjoy the simplicity of Form 2555-EZ.

Requirements For Form 2555-EZ

  1. You must be a U.S. citizen or resident alien.
  2. You must earn wages or a salary in a foreign country.
  3. You must have a total foreign earned income of $101,300 or less.
  4. You must file a calendar year return that covers a 12-month period.
  5. You must not have self-employment income.
  6. You must not have business or moving expenses.
  7. You must not claim the foreign housing exclusion or deduction.

While the 2555-EZ is an enticing option, it is not applicable to people who receive self-employed income, claim moving expenses, or claim the foreign housing exclusion or deduction. This becomes a problematic area for many English teachers who give private courses outside of a structured work environment, and are therefore considered “self-employed.”

Another Option, The Foreign House Exclusion

My friend Laura also considered claiming the foreign housing exclusion. The foreign housing exclusion is useful for those whose earned income exceeds the limit of $101,300. (The first $44.28 per day is not deductible.) The Foreign Housing Exclusion is called the Foreign Housing Deduction for self-employed people, but the concept is the same.

american flag kansas

Many expats get extremely frustrated with the U.S. tax-filing process, with its seemingly never-ending pages of questions followed by the massive crunching of numbers. I have met many of those people, worked with them, and assured them that we would be able to comply with all the tax requirements so long as we were detailed in our approach.

As you probably already know, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as “Obamacare”, imposes tax penalties on American citizens without health insurance. Fortunately, anyone who qualifies for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is not subject to the penalties of the ACA.

In Laura’s case, we managed to successfully file her taxes and her Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. We also managed to receive a tax credit for the income taxes taken out by the Italian government.

Thank you very much Oliver for sharing some of your expertise with the many expats who may be paying taxes they don’t have to. Oliver goes further into detail in his highly rated book, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans. For those of you Americans living abroad, it’s probably a good idea to know how your tax situation changes – and doesn’t – which Oliver has covered previously on foXnoMad in his post, How Taxes Change When Americans Go Abroad.

How To Protect Your Phone And Privacy When Traveling Across International Borders

phone edinburgh

You are traveling in a world that’s getting smaller while at the same time carrying more information about yourself than at any time history. As international travel becomes easier, more and more travelers are confronting the legal reality that many rights you may have in a country don’t apply at the border. Earlier this year, Sidd Bikkannavar, an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (and a US citizen), was detained in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and his NASA-issue phone searched.

Such cases are more common than you may realize. In the United States in 2015, an estimated 4,444 phones were searched or seized at the border. It’s important to understand your digital rights as a traveler and protect your personal information from unwarranted searches and seizure.

What Are Your Rights At A Border?

Not all borders are the same but broadly speaking borders don’t have to be lines on a map either. Sea and airports are considered borders themselves, which is why you haven’t technically entered a country until you pass the immigration line. The United States Supreme Court, for example, has repeatedly ruled that the American 4th Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t quite apply at the border, even if you’re a U.S. citizen.

Your phone, all the social media accounts its logged into, photos, and other personal information can be searched, confiscated, or downloaded without probable cause in most countries. There are however, some measures you can take to protect yourself faster than you can say, “I have nothing to hide.”

Tactics From Simple To Drastic

First of all, know your rights depending on where you are going. Not bringing your phone with you is the first, most drastic option. Leaving your smartphone which serves as camera, GPS, fitness tracker, and more isn’t feasible for most people. Many companies (not to mention journalists and lawyers) whose employees travel with sensitive company information on their devices, opt for a less drastic maneuver. To protect their proprietary information, sources, etc. they back up their phones to a hard drive, cloud service, or somewhere else; then wipe their phones before traveling. Once they arrive at their destination, they simply restore their phones from the backups.

Other tactics include getting a “burner” phone, one you only use while traveling that’s not logged into your social media or email accounts. (Maybe a new Nokia 3310?) Obviously, you’re shifting your data elsewhere and inconveniencing yourself to varying degrees depending on how concerned about your privacy you are.

Digital Resistance Band

In many countries, it’s legally more difficult for border agents to compel you to give up a password, than a fingerprint. Some privacy advocacy groups recommend removing fingerprint unlocking capabilities from your phone; or turning the phone off so you can legally refuse to give up your passwords. (Be careful though, in Canada for example, this can get you charged with obstruction.) And in pretty much all cases, resisting is going to get you a lot of hassle.

Ultimately, this is an issue that will continue progress (or not) in the various legal systems around the world. In the meantime here’s how to boost the privacy of your iPhone, improve privacy settings on Android, and come up with your own personal travel security plan.

How Taxes Change When Americans Go Abroad

This is a guest post by Olivier Wagner, a Certified Public Accountant, U.S. immigrant, expat, and perpetual traveler who preaches the philosophy of being a worldly American. In his new book, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans, he uses his expertise to show you how to use 100% legal strategies (beyond traditionally maligned “tax havens”) to keep your income and assets safe from the IRS.

washington dc plane flying

More people are renouncing their U.S. citizenship now than ever before. Each has their own reasons for doing this. Some are worried about the changing political landscape of today. Others pay attention to new rules and restrictions on freedom of travel, or (for better or worse) how the rest of the world views Americans. Mostly, they want to avoid all the complicated tax burdens that come with the territory of being a U.S. citizen. It’s not necessarily difficult to get rid of your American citizenship, but it does warrant a lot of deep thought, planning, and a bit of money to pull off properly.

U.S. Citizens Always Have Tax Obligations

Many Americans living abroad have never even filed their taxes, or else haven’t filed in many years. Some have been abroad so long that, aside from their passports and the occasional trip back home to see family, they have no real ties to the United States (not even a Social Security number). In their minds, they’ve long ago sworn off the idea of getting involved with U.S. taxes and would be completely financially unable to get caught up on them anyway.

U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans  U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans

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Some of these people have been very lucky to coast under the radar this long without any consequences. It’s very important that they get tax compliant as quickly as possible, and that they utilize every tool available to minimize their expenses. There are very large consequences to continuing to ignore this, yet so many people don’t pay any attention to it at all because it seems so overwhelming to consider. They may even take personal offense to having to pay anything at all.

Foreign Banks Talk To The IRS About US Citizens

Things are only getting more complicated for Americans living abroad as time goes on. Starting in 2015, a new law went into effect across the globe requiring foreign banks to identify which of their clients are American citizens and report their name, address, and account balance to the IRS back home (although litigation between the Department of Justice and Swiss banks caused the trend to start in Switzerland as early as 2012). It’s called FATCA, and it stands for Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

Additionally, anyone holding an equivalent balance of more than $10,000 in foreign bank accounts must file an FBAR report. When the IRS receives this data, they will try to match that to the taxpayer on record as reported by the foreign banks directly. The penalty for willfully failing to file an FBAR could be up to 50% of the account balance per year, giving serious caution to anyone interested in holding even some of their money offshore (or $10,000 per account if the failure to file was not willful, and possibly zero if the taxpayer had a reasonable cause).

Some Taxes Can Be Avoided By Expats

Some Americans living abroad today know about the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE), which allows them to exclude up to $101,300 (as of 2016) of foreign income from their taxable income. Nomads and expatriates who don’t make a ton of money will typically use this to avoid paying taxes at all in the US, but only if they know how to claim things on their tax return correctly. One can claim the FEIE by being an actual resident of a foreign country (a “bona fide resident”). There’s also a physical presence test for people who spend at least 330 days in any 12-month period outside the U.S. This is fine for those who have truly relocated outside the states, but what about others who still return frequently to visit friends and family, or split their time equally between multiple homes?

american flags washington dc

It’s important to understand that your tax situation will never be the same once you start traveling, yet so long as you remain an American you will always have some kind of tax obligation. The IRS will always be checking up on you, no matter where you live or work. But that’s okay so long as you can keep up with the new rules that apply to you, and learn to (legally) work the system to your advantage. You may even be able to reduce your tax obligation to nothing at all.

Thank you very much Oliver for sharing some of your expertise with many who might not know they owe taxes. Oliver goes further into detail in his highly rated book, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans.

How To Track Steps Using Your iPhone (Hint: It’s A Built-In Feature)

lisbon 25 de abril

Many of you want to track the number of steps you’ve taken during the day or know the distance you’ve covered sightseeing. Activity trackers like Fitbit are good options, but if you’re an iPhone user mainly interested in tracking distance and steps, this functionality is already built-in your phone.

fitbit charge 2 Fitbit Charge 2 Heart Rate + Fitness Wristband

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All you need to do is activate the feature from Apple’s Health app and remember to keep your phone on you at all times. Here’s how to do the first part, the second part I’m guessing you started a long time ago.

Dust Off Health

It’s easy to ignore the Health app, which has been a part of iOS since version 8.0. Trust me, it’s there, because Apple doesn’t let you delete it – but unlike a number of fairly useless apps Cupertino forces on you, Health, although clumsy, is a convenient way to track your daily movements.

  • In case you can’t find it, ask Siri to “open Health” or swipe down from any screen to search for Health.

Once you’re in the Health app, if it’s your first time using it, you’ll be asked to either enter (or skip) your medical data and emergency contacts. After you’ve completed or ignored those steps, you’ll see the Heatlh Data screen shown below.

ios health data

Tracking Activity

Tap Health Data, then Fitness > Walking + Running Distance. Next, toggle on Show On Dashboard, and go back to the Health Data screen. From there, in about 24 hours after your phone has had a chance to collect some data, you should see a graph of how many steps you’ve taken, flights of stairs you’ve climbed, and the overall distance covered.

ios walking steps

There’s no need for any additional equipment except the phone of course, it can’t track how much you’re walking if it’s not in your pocket. iOS also has a list of recommended apps, which can expand your fitness tracking ability, but for simple sightseeing step counting, Health is a handy tool.

With some data on how much you’re walking, you can better calculate how many calories you burned sightseeing, and potentially encourage yourself to 10,000 daily steps, even at the airport.

Win $600 By Telling Me Your Favorite City For This Year’s Best City To Visit Tournament

best city to visit 2017

The Best City To Visit Travel Tournament in an annual contest on this site where 64 cities are matched up and eliminated by weekly reader votes. You tell me what city you think is the best in the world to visit to and if it wins, I’ll give you a $600 gift card to your choice of several online stores, including Apple and Amazon.

To enter, write your favorite city in the comments section of this post before Sunday, February 26th 8:00pm US EST.

The cities will then be placed in tournament brackets sorted by geographical region, with the first round of voting beginning on March 2nd, 2017. Each week the number of cities will be halved by reader votes, until there is one left. Hopefully the winning city is the one you picked.

Tournament Rules

Cities are first come first serve and several cities have already been picked by my newsletter subscribers (who got the first picks). The Best City To Visit Travel Tournament is a round robin style competition, with voting every week during the month of March.

Important Dates

Once you enter a city, there’s nothing you have to do but keep in mind voting for yourself isn’t a bad idea. These are the Tuesdays in the coming weeks to make note of:

  • March 2, 2017: Round of 64
  • March 7, 2017: Round of 32
  • March 14, 2017: Sweet 16
  • March 21. 2017: Elite 8
  • March 28, 2017: Final 4
  • April 4, 2017: Championship

Here are some other ways you can help your city win based on how previous winners have succeeded. Please remember that many comments automatically go into moderation where they remain invisible until they’re approved. Selections are still first come, first serve, keep checking back to see if you got the city you wanted or need to pick an alternate.

Winner Announced April 11, 2017

The winner of this year’s tournament will be announced on Tuesday, April 11th and prize gift card delivered electronically to the winner by June 25, 2017. Those are quite a few dates to keep up with – the best way not to miss anything is to get my posts sent directly to your inbox.

  • The gift card can be used on the Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Delta, and Southwest Airlines online stores.

More retailers may also be added; or those above modified at any time before the end of the tournament – gift cards must be for the full $600 prize amount and cannot be split among stores, transferred into cash, and will be sent to the email you use in the comments section to choose your city. Best of luck to everyone and please let me know if you have any questions.

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About Anil Polat

foxnomad aboutI'm the blogger and computer security engineer who writes foXnoMad while on a journey to visit every country in the world. I'll show you the tips, tricks, and tech you can use to travel smarter. Read More

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