Saturday, February 13, 2016

Time Flies - Passport Renewal Time

My current U.S. passport photo was taken literally within 3 weeks of my birth. I'm almost 4.5 years old now, and I look pretty different these days. But more importantly, my child passport is set to expire November 30, 2016.

While it may seem like I have plenty of time to apply for a renewal passport, consider the following:

1. Many countries require you to have at least 6 months of validity left before allowing you to enter. Therefore, I should have my new one by May 30, 2016.
2. Factoring in that it can take up to 6-8 weeks to process, we should be applying no later than March 31, 2016.

But since we're not planning to go outside the country over the next few months, we thought it made sense to apply for my renewal now, so that I'd be ready to travel internationally for my school's Spring Break in late April.

As you may recall, I had to apply for my passport in person with both of my parents. Given I'm still not 16 years old yet, that rule still applies.

Step 1 - Print your forms
So my father went online and found a web-version of the DS-11 form that we need to fill out. Mostly it was just basic information such as full legal name, address, phone number, social security number, etc. Since we had to go in person, you to save it as a PDF and print it out with you (single sided).

Step 2 - Submit your forms.
We were told:

"For Minors under Age 16 you must establish proof of citizenship AND proof of relationship between the child applicant and the parent(s)/guardian(s). Previous U.S. passports are not acceptable as proof of relationship."

So we'll bring an original birth certificate (which we were going to need anyway).

Step 3 - Where to submit
By clicking on the Locate button, we found several post offices and passport centers near us with information about (a) when they're open, (b) if you need an appointment and (c) if they do photos there.

Step 4 - What to submit
As you can see in the infographic, we'll need a passport photo, a check for the $105 in total fees ($85 for the passport and another $25 for processing), proof of my U.S. Citizenship and proof of parent's relationship including their photo IDs.

It's important to note that for my Proof of U.S. Citizenship, I need to give them both (a) the original certified certificate and (b) a photocopy of both the front AND back. Fortunately, my father had ordered 4 original copies when I was born, so we had backups. Smart dad!

Now I just need to practice my poses for my new passport photo. I wonder if they'll allow some sassy shots.

UPDATE 3/4/2016:  Definitely did not need to pay any expedite fee as we received our passport back within just 16 calendar days after submitting it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Retention Year 3

Every year, my father calls up his favorite banks and asks if there were any offers to compel him to keep their credit cards open for another year. After all, when you have as many credit cards as my family does, spending $95 every year for each premium credit card can start to add up. So either (a) the banks will have to give him more than that in value each year or (b) will have to waive the fee.

This past year there was also a lot of turbulence in the hotel/airline world, including the announced acquisition of Starwood Hotels. This development changes our strategy because my family has several SPG American Express cards each with a $95 annual fee. We used to think we'd keep this card forever, but assuming the SPG program goes away, the Amex card will hold little value to us.

Additionally, we likely won't fly enough on paid flights this year to qualify for United Gold status. As such, the United Select Visa (which used to help my father re-qualify for Gold each year and offers 3x on United spend) has less value to us than in prior years.

So these "must have" cards have lost some luster, especially if we can't get Amex and Chase to offer some special retention promotion to offset the fees. Recall that 2 years ago, my father received 2,000 SPG points in exchange for paying the $65 annual fee (now $95) for his SPG Amex and an additional 5,000 United miles for paying the $95 annual fee for his United Select Visa.

But every year is different.

Last year, there was no offer for the SPG Amex card but a $100 statement credit for his United Select Visa. So we weren't sure what to expect in 2016 when my father called.

Starwood American Express
After saying he wasn't sure about keeping the card for another year after the $95 annual fee posted, the first Amex representative immediately transferred my father to an Account Specialist. But the Specialist could only offer him a $25 statement credit this year.

Despite my father's concerns over the continuation of the SPG program following the Marriott transaction, the Specialist didn't have anything else to compensate for the annual fee. He did, however, suggest that there would be an incentive for those SPG cardholders to convert to another Amex product if/when the Marriott transaction closed and the SPG loyalty program ends. Since Marriott is the larger company and has a historic relationship with Chase, the likely scenario would be that American Express would have to shut down the SPG Amex product line and see if cardholders would be willing to convert to another comparable Amex product, such as their Membership Rewards card or the Hilton Amex cards.

While he obviously had no inside information, he referred to Costco Amex holders receiving a promotion of up to $200-300 for converting their Costco Amex cards to Sam's Club Amex cards after Costco terminated their Amex relationship and switched to Citi.

So my father took the $25 statement credit and will see what conversion offer comes down the road later this year.

[UPDATE 2/12/16:  We called back for another matter completely - to pre-authorize a very significant charge in excess of our credit limit. We mentioned that last time we did this transaction, it was declined despite calling ahead to pre-authorize it. We didn't expect anything other than allowing the transaction to go through, but to our surprise, the phone agent also said she would give us 2,000 SPG points as a loyalty credit. Not too shabby!]

Chase United Select
Chase was his next call and unfortunately, not a great outcome. He was greeted by a friendly customer service representative who outlined the valuable benefits of this outdated card (which is no longer offered), including 3x on purchases as well as 2x on restaurants, transportation and home improvement stores.

However, the $95 fee wasn't ideal, so he said he was thinking of cancelling the card.

The agent countered with an opportunity to downgrade to a no-fee United card that would earn 1 mile for every $2 spend. Given my father could earn 2% cash back on every $1 spend with his Citi DoubleCash card, this new offer wasn't attractive at all. No thank you, Chase.

Instead of cancelling, though, my father decided to hang up and call again (HUCA) in another week.

[UPDATE 2/12/16:  We called back and this time, sounded more certain that we were going to close the account. They agent immediately offered a $60 statement credit or to downgrade to the no-fee version. We took the statement credit.]

Chase Sapphire Preferred
My mother had a $95 annual fee on her Chase Sapphire Preferred card as well. We hardly ever use this card and only applied because of the 40,000 UR point sign up bonus. Relative to the other card products out there, earning 2x on dining and travel is the average, not a highlight.

Instead of closing, however, we decided to keep the $35,000 available credit line and convert the card into a no-fee Chase Freedom card.

Even though my mother already has a Freedom card, having a second one would allow her to earn more 5% bonus categories each quarter. When they offer 5x on groceries, for example, we'll definitely find ways to pre-spend at our usual stores via gift cards to use over the rest of the calendar year.

We still have to call Citi (for my mother's American Airlines Amex) and Barlcays (for my father's US Airways Mastercard), but we'll see how customer friendly those banks are.