Cheap Tricks: A Case Study

In the March issue of the Singapore American Newspaper, I reveal all (well, most) of my tricks for finding deals on flights and accommodation.   

Oh the Skies You'll Fly

Let’s say you’ve been invited to a wedding in Newburyport, Massachusetts. You’re past the congratulatory Skype call and now have to book flights and accommodation. Thankfully, you have a strategy and sit down at your computer with confidence. Being the savvy traveler you are, you know your web browsers track cookies and that booking websites might nudge up the price if you take your time. To get around this, you open a new window in incognito mode. In Google Chrome and Safari, this is enabled by hitting Control (Command for Mac users) + Shift + N. In Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, you hit Control (or Command) + Shift + P.

The wedding is Saturday June 16, so you decide to depart Singapore on Tuesday June 12 or Wednesday June 13 and to return on Tuesday June 19 or Wednesday June 20, because you know Tuesdays and Wednesdays are usually the cheapest days of the week to fly. Google tells you the airport nearest to your destination is Boston Logan International, but you note that Manchester-Boston Regional as well as airports in New York and New Jersey are also feasible.

Time to search. You open six tabs in your incognito browser window: Kayak, Skyscanner, Kiwi, Expedia, Google Flights, and Momondo. If you were flying to a country within Southeast Asia, you would also check the websites of the regional budget airlines since these are often not indexed by the search engines. After inputting your dates and destination, you compare the results. Kiwi and Google Flights both indicate that in this case, departing Singapore on Monday June 11 is less expensive than Tuesday or Wednesday, and so you adjust your search parameters. In descending order, in SGD, the fare for a single traveler in Economy comes out to be:

  • $1410 on Kayak
  • $1315 on Expedia
  • $1238 on Kiwi
  • $1220 on Momondo
  • $1139 on Google Flights
  • $1018 on Skyscanner

You realize that the cheapest flight has two layovers and the total travel time to Boston is 42 hours. This doesn’t bother you, so you snap up the Skyscanner deal. Or you’re a human being and you fine-tune your filters to search for journeys with one layover and a travel time of 27 hours max. All the search engines now quote around $1430, with two exceptions. Kiwi’s estimating $1550, so you close that tab, and your heart skips happily that Google Flights’ quote remains at $1139.

You’re itching to snap up those tickets. But you take a deep breath and examine the details. The layover is a measly 2 hours but since both legs of the journey are operated by the same carrier and since you’ll be in London Gatwick, a small airport, that should be enough time to make your connection, despite traveling during the busy summer season.

And there’s one more angle to consider. Your hotel in Newburyport will cost about $150 SGD per night, $1200 for your entire stay, which means the total price of your trip would tally up to $2339. You check whether Kayak, Expedia or Momondo have package deals that can beat that. Momondo’s best offer is $2656 and Expedia’s is $2378, but lo and behold Kayak quotes you a package at $2013.

You again wisely counsel yourself to be patient and check the fine print. Sure enough, some tweaks have been made to your parameters. You would be leaving on Sunday June 10 and your hotel is in Boston, a 45-minute drive outside of Newburyport. You decide that’s a compromise you can live with, carefully reread all the details of your booking before paying, and then muse at the irony. The website that initially seemed like the worst deal wound up being the best.

BONUS TIPS!

Here are a few more resources, exclusive for my online readers.

I book trips to other countries once every other month, on average, and Secret Flying has some of the best deals I’ve ever seen. They track down short-term promotions and error fairs on airlines. At the time of writing, they’ve unearthed a deal that would let you fly from New York to Cambodia for just $470 USD roundtripTravel Pirates is a similar resource, though it focuses more on package deals and trips based out of the United States. Six nights in the Hawai’i Hilton plus roundtrip flights from Los Angeles for $890 USD, anyone?

What I like about Secret Flying and Travel Pirates is that they both give very clear instructions on on how to get the discount prices. You’re not surprised by fees or confused by the process, which is refreshing. If you’re flexible when it comes to timing and/or destination, you can find some amazing trip deals.

Lastly is a site for maximizing your layovers: Air Wander. My family lives 16-22 hours flight time from where I live and those long-haul journeys can be exhausting to tackle in one sitting. Enter Air Wander, which lets you pop in your dates, departure and destination, and the number of days you’d like to spend on a layover, and then searches for available options. You can even add more than one stopover or specify which cardinal direction you’d like to fly in.

Say I’m flying Singapore to Ireland on June 1st and can spare two days for a layover. Air Wander tells me that a stopover in Amsterdam will save me the most money, but lists all possible options and how much extra it would cost to stop there (Madrid’s only $8 USD). Turns out, I can fly one-way from Singapore to Amsterdam to Dublin for $430 USD. This isn’t necessarily cheaper than searching through Kayak or Kiwi, but it’s much more convenient than typing out all your multi-city parameters and I love having the ability to compare all possible long layovers without having to do repeated searches.

Happy Travels!

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An Expat’s Easy Return to Singapore: It’s a Tale of Two Cities

Published on January 13, 2016 in The Wall Street Journal: Expat:

By the time I was 10 years old, I had lived in five countries across three continents: Ireland to London to Tokyo to Singapore to New Jersey. By the age of 23, I had picked up my American citizenship and an American fiancé who was willing to move to Singapore with me. But I had no illusions that I was returning to a lifestyle I knew.

There are few territories on earth that have changed as quickly or as drastically as Singapore has over the past two decades. I can count on one hand the landmarks from my childhood that still stand. My experience as an expat in Singapore now differs sharply from my parents’ experience in the mid-90s, when the island nation was just shedding its rank as a hardship post.

During the two years my parents lived there, two notable incidents placed Singapore in the consciousness of both Americans and Europeans: Briton Nicholas Leeson caused the spectacular collapse of Barings Bank from his position in Singapore, and 18-year-old Michael Fay became the first American citizen to be sentenced for caning under Singapore law for vandalizing cars and public property. Despite negative media, Singapore’s economic wealth continued to grow at a rapid pace as the onset of the Japanese recession sent many international firms searching for other footholds in Asia. Nevertheless, many expats in the finance sector, including my father in his role at J.P. Morgan, were obliged to take frequent trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong, who retained their reputation as financial powerhouses in the region. These days, Singapore can hold its own as a center of business.

Even without Singapore’s explosive growth, technology like Skype and WhatsApp have transformed the previous alienation of expat life into a far more connected existence. My parents made the costly phone call home once a week at most; I can see my family’s faces and hear their voices for hours every day if I choose. Mom mailed photos of us to my grandmother; I’m friends with most of my family on Facebook. With the exception of a handful of guidebooks, my parents arrived in Japan completely blind; I had the luxury of turning to Google to explore life in Singapore before I stepped on a plane.

But the more things change, the more things stay the same. Life in Singapore was as easy for expats then as it is now, particularly when contrasted to the self-contained and still somewhat xenophobic Japan of the 1990s. Singapore was a smaller, less congested city than Tokyo and presented a wider range of Western food. They spoke English. Mom formed easy, close friendships with the other expat mothers in the condo, while we children played in the pool. That condominium surprisingly still stands. When my dad visited in 2012, he noted that although Singapore’s outer shell had changed, the people fundamentally had the same attitude and disposition. Mom commented that Singapore’s rigidly regulated multiculturalism, where everyone celebrated everything, had created a diluted culture 20 years ago and that today the city feels even more sanitized; in many ways, Singapore no longer feels like an Asian city.

Ironically, the move from Singapore to the U.S. was the hardest by far. When we were in Asia, we were expats and thus part of an instant group. When we landed in New Jersey, we needed to make friends in an already settled community, where we were simply faces in an extraordinarily diverse crowd. Immigrants and their descendants were ubiquitous; it was not a small, supportive club. Our Irish accents and penchant for British spellings garnered prejudice more than once from neighbors and teachers. Despite the difficulty in adjusting, the U.S. remains to date the country my parents have lived in the longest.

When I was considering a move to Singapore in 2011, they were enthusiastic. There was no fear around it; Southeast Asia was familiar territory and Singapore was the safest country in the region. My parents’ experiences had long ago taught them that living abroad gives you a perspective and an appreciation that traveling alone cannot. Although it’s tough being 12 time zones away, to my parents’ eternal credit, they encouraged me to go out and explore the world. I will always remember what Mom told me when I was getting emotional on the day I left: “This isn’t a good bye. It’s a see you later.”

5 Ways to Promote Creativity in the Workplace

Written in July 2014 for Aureus Consulting:

According to psychologist Sam Glucksberg, incentivizing employees to be more creative actually does the complete opposite. Offering rewards for creativity narrows the focus of an employee, which restricts his/her ability to conceive of possibilities and dulls the mind to creative thinking. This is a fact that has been proven in economic and psychological studies over and over again.

So then how to promote creativity in the workplace? Creativity can’t be induced with rewards and certainly can’t be forced; but it can be welcomed. Here are five ways to create a work environment more conducive to creativity:

1) Have a place to jot down your ideas.

Whether it’s a group inspiration board for the office or just a person’s notebook on their desk, designating a space for ideas is like preparing a guest room for a good but unpredictable friend. You might not know when this friend will show up, but you want to make sure you can squeeze them in whenever they do. A group idea board also encourages people to brainstorm together in a more relaxed setting than a formal meeting.

2) Be easygoing and positive.

People are more likely to share ideas if they feel comfortable. Psychological studies have revealed that creativity is more likely to visit us when we’re in a positive mood, because a relaxed attitude grants us greater flexibility in thinking and a widened perspective. So if you’re struggling with a problem that demands innovation, try watching a funny video or listening to upbeat music to pep yourself up.

3) Be open to diversity.

A uniform and agreeable group of employees may make for a pleasant work atmosphere, but when it comes to creativity, the less homogeneity the better. Encountering new ways of approaching even simple tasks can create more room for ideas to flourish.

4) Take a break.

This may seem counterintuitive but the best ideas can come to you when you’re not looking for them. That means giving your brain a break, using your annual leave, or even just relaxing for a few minutes. Creativity can be hard to summon sometimes, but it’s nearly impossible to summon when you’re stressed or overworked.

5) Leave room for autonomy.

Since rewards don’t encourage people to be their most creative selves, what does? Room for autonomy. Google famously implemented a system where employees were allowed to spend 20% of their time working on a Google-related passion project of their own choosing or of their own creation. This policy led to products like Google News, Google’s autocomplete system, and even Gmail. When an employee feels she has autonomy and purpose, creativity naturally infuses itself into her work.

aureus

 

Internet Safety for the Casual User: Q & A with Nicholas Schwartz

Published on February 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

As expats, how can we not adore the Internet? We can stay in touch with our distant loved ones via an array of seemingly cost-free tools and platforms. The convenience offered by these services is tempting—it’s quicker if your browser saves your passwords, it’s handy to back up files online, it’s useful if social media sites know your home address—but what’s easier for you to access is easier for hackers to get to as well. It can be tough to balance the addictive joys of social media with the dangers that come with sharing your personal information online. I sat down with Nicholas Schwartz, an Information Security Technical Consultant at the Bank of New York Mellon, to get some tips on how to stay safe. Note that these suggestions are primarily for Windows users as viruses are generally not targeted at Apple computers.

SAN: How much personal information is a safe amount to put out there?

NS: It’s better to operate with the mentality that your information is already out there, since many people besides you can disclose data about you. For example, if you list your email address in a corporate presentation and your company uploads it to the Internet, your email is now out there for anyone to find.

SAN: So then how can we keep ourselves safe on sites like Facebook?

NS: On all social media sites, the most important things to watch out for are malicious links. They seem so straightforward but can send you to websites that can infect your machine with malware. This also goes for any links in emails, even those from trusted sources. If a link looks suspicious, take five seconds to right click on the link, select Copy Hyperlink, Copy Shortcut or Copy Link Location, and paste the result into Google. If there are no identical matches or if there is mention of it being related to spam or malware, do not click through.

SAN: For the casual internet user, what would your number one tip be?

NS: Download the Adblock Plus plugin for Firefox, Chrome or Internet Explorer. Even secure websites, such as The New York Times, lease areas of each page to advertising providers, who are in turn responsible for selecting the ads which are displayed. If an advertising provider is compromised, malware can be sent in an advertisement’s place and infect you on an otherwise secure website. By forbidding advertisements, Adblock Plus blocks a significant attack vector.

SAN: Do you have any suggestions specifically for expats?

NS: If you have ever made a scan of your passport or a copy of your signature and emailed it, remember that if anyone gets access to your email, they will be able to get ahold of that as well. So delete the message from your Sent folder. This is pertinent not only to expats but to any frequent travelers. Tempting as it is, it’s a bad idea to retain copies of important documents in any repository that can be accessed from the web (like Google Drive or Dropbox).

SAN: So if my email or social media accounts are hacked, what should I do?

NS: If any of your major accounts have been compromised, the first and most important thing to do is to secure your personal email account by changing the password from a computer other than one you normally use. The worst-case scenario is if someone has direct access to your machine via a Trojan Horse; it doesn’t matter how strong your security measures are if a virus is recording every key you press. If this has happened, you will need to bring your computer to an IT specialist as very few — if any — anti-virus products will detect or remove this type of malware. The hard drive will need to be completely wiped and the operating system reinstalled. It’s exhausting, to be sure, but that type of malware is too grave a danger to do anything short of that.

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