Are You Covered for Medical Issues on the Road?

by Robert McGarvey

The United States Travel Insurance Association (USTiA) just issued a report that says only 6% of us buy travel medical insurance. Are we all fools?

Uh, no. Answer a few questions to start.

Question: how old are you?

Another question: where do you work?

A third – crucial – question: Do you travel out of the US?

The last question sets the table. If you don’t, or rarely, travel out of the US, you probably have little to worry about especially as regards emergency care. Even if you are in Medicare Advantage – a managed care approach – you are covered for emergencies in the US even if your network has no presence. Ditto for holders of other managed care policies: you probably are covered for emergencies in the US.

So this story tosses a match on fears but there may be nothing to fear here but fear itself.

But probably, like me, you travel outside the US occasionally. Maybe once a year. Maybe a bit more often.

Listen up: that foreign travel could wreck your bank account if a medical emergency hits. Few policies cover foreign care. Not even emergencies.

Even some domestic medical treatment may ding your wallet if it happens away from home. Read that again. If you live in the Bronx the care you get in Bayonne may not be covered. Ouch.

First the good news. Most of us in fact are covered for emergencies in the US. Then there’s the fine print. The word to notice is “emergency.” If you break your arm, it’s an emergency. It’s probably covered. What if you sprain it? What if you really only pulled a muscle? Hang tight because you may be getting billed personally if you are out of network.

Be very cautious about seeking care when you are away from home and out of network, even if you are in the next state. Many plans will deny coverage for what they deem routine care that’s delivered out of network. Said Consumer Reports: “if you have a relatively minor problem—say, you sprained your ankle or suspect your child has strep throat—how much of your bill is covered can depend on where you seek care and the type of insurance you have, says Cathryn Donaldson, director of communications at America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade association for insurance companies.

“Your insurer may treat your out-of-town healthcare as an out-of-network claim. As a result, you could be on the hook for a larger portion of the cost or the whole bill.”

If in doubt – and you often should be – contact the insurer for advice before seeking out of network care.

The bigger problem is with foreign travel and, yes, we hear stories of travelers with significant medical issues, a broken limb for instance, getting dinged for several thousand dollars in US cash before a hospital will admit the patient. These stories aren’t in Europe or Canada but traveler beware in a lot of the world.

Which brings us back to the money question: are you covered abroad? The first step: if you are an employee, ask your HR department. Also ask if you are covered when traveling for work and how about on vacation. The answers may differ.

Don’t be surprised if a rider covers business travel incidents – but not personal travel. For that you may need special coverage (see below).

You have a personal, Obamacare type policy? Check the fine print but the odds are high it offers no coverage outside the US. You too need special coverage.

What about Medicare recipients? A very, very few Advantage plans offer international coverage. So do a few traditional plans. But the vast majority provide bupkis. If you are on Medicare and you travel outside the country – and that means exactly what it says: you ordinarily aren’t covered in Canada or Mexico either – get travel medical insurance unless you know your plan specifically says otherwise.

Can you count on the kindness of strangers, that is, hope you will get gratis emergency care? Stories of same were numerous a generation ago, especially among travelers to European Union countries where the hospitals generally do not bill patients and many simply winked when a US patient came in. Do not count on that nowadays as many national health programs are straining under use and lack deep pockets. Ireland for instance says forget about it.

Bottomline: most of us need to take special steps to be sure we are covered when we travel abroad. That usually means buying a policy.

Want coverage? JoeSentMe subscribers get a deal on MedJetAssist Global Evacuation. That’s a $35 discount on a personal policy, $50 on a family deal.

Many others offer one-off policies for specific trips. Shop carefully, buy only from names you know and trust. This is a space with a lot of hucksters and you don’t want to find out you got fleeced when you are on the operating table in Rome.

Personally, for years, I have had a medical protection policy via American Express that provides up to $50,000 in expenses per incident and, no, in today’s medicine that isn’t a lot. But the policy costs me just a notch above $100 annually. Alas, that policy may not be available to new customers, but other outlets offer similar.

Just don’t go out of country without knowing you are covered. And don’t go out of network domestically without knowing similar.

Hoteliers: Time to Give Us Keyless Entry

By Robert McGarvey

How many ways have hotel key cards failed us. I remember a stay at a Berlin hotel where twice in the space of the first six hours I was a guest I needed to replace the key card.

I remember long, long walks in a Las Vegas casino hotel to get a new card.

Ditto in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC.

Key cards are failed technology. They just are unreliable.

And, worse, they can be hacked.

So is now the time – finally – when hoteliers will switch to room entry systems based on the cellphones we carry?

The New York Times believes just maybe. It related that “the number of hotels in the United States that have digital keys available rose from 6 percent in 2016 to 17 percent last year, according to a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association.”

Of course, there are quirks in the implementation.  According to the Times, “Some [hotels], including Hilton and Marriott, only allow a single phone to receive a key during a stay, and other guests in the room receive card keys. Like the card keys, the digital keys can be used to access elevators, fitness centers, parking garages and other common areas. Some mobile keys require the user to touch a button on their phone screen to unlock the door, while others require that the phone be held up to the lock.”

Basically however this is all quite simple. Some electronic innards are built into the room lock and the traveler uses Bluetooth to open the door. Easy.  

Why is this taking so long? Why are the implementations often so wonky?

Partly it’s our own fault.  Many of us just don’t want to use our phone to open our hotel rooms (also cruise ships and, for the record, my key card failed on the last cruise I took in October 2018).  

A recent YouGuv poll found that only 29% of us say they would prefer to access a hotel room wirelessly – which means that 71% are content with the status quo, that is, keycard entry.

If you are in that hold out group, feast on the vulnerabilities of key card systems. Researchers have shown that with a one minute hack and a $300 RFID card read/write tool most hotel key card systems can be hacked.  Pull a room card out of the trash, reprogram it and, bingo, you have a master key card that will open an estimated 500,000 to one million hotel locks around the world.  

Feel safe? Sure, that vulnerability may have been patched by now but know that there are other vulnerabilities, other hackers, and a growing acceptance of the reality that keycard entry systems just don’t measure up.


Keycards also fail – frequently and annoyingly.  It’s just poor technology.  I cannot remember the last time I spent more than a couple nights in a hotel and didn’t need a replacement card. For a one night business trip, sure, no probs.  But for anything longer they can be counted on to fail.

Nobody in the office space, where keycards took hold perhaps 50 years ago, believes keycards have a long future.   Some of course are using biometrics for entry and others are using phones. In that world, keycards are heading towards extinction.

So why aren’t hotels stampeding to put keycards in their past? Probably it comes down to money or, rather, the reluctance to spend it.  Hoteliers, and the hotel owners, just are skinflints when it comes to investing in this kind of upgrade.

That’s despite the fact that, as reported in Hotel Management, “Mobile keys are the safest form of guestroom entry in hotels today. Unlike plastic keycards that guests often leave within easy reach, which provide immediate access to the guestroom when stolen, mobile keys offer several layers of security.”

Then there are environmental benefits in getting rid of oldfashioned plastic keycards. Hilton for instance estimates a savings of 40 tons of plastic due to get use of its Digital Key app.

Another, huge plus of using the phone to open doors is that it just may eliminate the check in desk and almost certainly will end the long lines.  A guest who has a reservation can just sign in via the phone and walk straight to his/her room where the phone should open the door.

Sign me up.  

I have used a keyless system to open up and start my car for at least five years. No fails. How convenient.

I want it in hotel rooms too and I want it now.

How about you?

Is This the End of Ripoff Hotel Resort Fees?

By Robert McGarvey

Washington, D.C. district attorney Karl A. Racine just dropped a bomb on Marriott International – and we all should applaud him.

The target of Racine’s ire: resort fees, charged by increasing numbers of hotels who have decided it is so easy to pick our pockets, they would be fools if they didn’t. So $20, maybe as much as $50 is slapped on our hotel room rates but those numbers don’t show up when we search in Expedia, Trivago, etc.

Resort fees can make a huge difference. Just this a.m. I looked at an Arizona hotel that had a summer special for Arizona residents only. The nightly rate: $224. In the fine print however I’m told there’s a $41 resort fee. That’s a nearly 20% bump.

A guess is that industrywide resort fees now put $2.7 billion, or more, in hoteliers’ pockets yearly.

Enter AG Racine.  “Marriott reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by deceiving consumers about the true price of its hotel rooms. Bait-and-switch advertising and deceptive pricing practices are illegal. With this lawsuit, we are seeking monetary relief for tens of thousands of District consumers who paid hidden resort fees and to force Marriott to be fully transparent about their prices so consumers can make informed decisions when booking hotel rooms.”

The lawsuit elaborated: “One key effect of this price deception is that consumers shopping for a hotel room on either Marriott’s website, or an online travel agency site (OTA) like Priceline or Expedia, are misled into believing a Marriott hotel room is cheaper than it actually is.”

Marriott of course has a different take.  In an interview on LinkedIn, CEO Arne Sorenson vigorously defended the fees.  He said: “You’ve got resort fees in hotels, baggage fees in airlines. None of us as consumers necessarily love it. What we’ve tried to do is be very transparent with disclosure.”

What absolute nonsense.  

Everytime we fly we have a choice – do we pay to check a bag or don’t we?  Personally I have never paid to check a bag. As in not once.

At many resorts the resort fee is inescapable.  Go ahead, try. Say: I don’t plan to swim in the pool, use your idiot gym, don’t want the junk newspaper, and am perfectly happy to be denied all that you bundle in it.

And I definitely don’t want the hotel WiFi which is dangerous to use.

Used to be a loud consumer could talk his/her way out of a resort fee at the check in desk. It has gotten much, much harder. Hotels are digging in their heels.

The greed multiplies. Now more hotels in urban areas are imposing “urban fees.”  According to the New York Times the Sofitel in Washington DC slaps guests with a $25 daily fee to cover “premium” Internet access, bottled water, yoga classes, and access to a bike share program. Many, many others are doing likewise.

Is there anything on that list you actually want? Or would use? Maybe the bottled water.

Some 55 hotels in San Francisco are reported to charge a resort or urban fee, for instance.

Back up a step. Is there real reason to believe now is a moment when resort and urban fees may in fact vanish?

I have written about resort fees for some years. Nothing changed except the fees got bigger and more resorts and hotels charged them.

Now things look different however.

According to Skift, “’The real takeaway from this lawsuit is to have an important jurisdiction file against a big company,’ said [NYU’s Bjorn] Hanson. ‘Other hotels will have to wait and see what happens, but other states and jurisdictions will feel that now is the time to go after them.’”

Hospitality lawyer Jim Butler notes this: “We have cautioned that consumer frustration over this issue is very high, and government agencies have periodically shown significant interest in jumping on a populist bandwagon. But today, it looks like the situation may have finally reached a turning point.”

What’s an individual hotel guest to do?  Act on what Hanson said. Write your state attorney general and urge him/her to follow in Washington, D.C.’s lead.  Handy list here.  Another list here.  

For an ambitious AG in a Democratic state, it’s an easy and sure way to grab headlines, win better name recognition, and get known as a consumer advocate. Goodby AG, hello governor.

Yes, hoteliers don’t like what they see coming. But it’s hard to have sympathy for folks who have been picking our pockets since perhaps 1997

Crying Out for an End to Overdraft Fees — Meet Grain Technology

By Robert McGarvey

Probably the single most despised charge at financial institutions is the overdraft fee – and a NerdWallet survey of the exact charges imposed by a selection of mid-sized (Navy Federal) through mammoth (Chase) institutions found fees at $20 (Navy Federal) and as high as $39 (KeyBank).

$35 is a particularly common charge in the survey.

Rapacious greed.

Ask yourself this. You present a Visa card at WalMart and the card is declined (and you know it’s because the balance is overextended and a payment is late).  Does the cashier say, “Sorry, bud, card declined and now you owe us another $35 for being a nuisance.”

That does not happen.

You walk out without your purchase but you aren’t dinged for a nuisance charge.

Overdrafts are different – charges are the norm – even tho at the financial institution all that happens is that bits and bytes shuffle around on a computer screen.

In the olden days, yes, a bounced check was a hassle. It generated lots of paperwork. Many hands of many clerks got involved. Very probably a fee was justified.

Not today. It’s all automated.

A few innovative, digital first institutions (Simple and Chime for instance) already charge no overdraft fees.  More will follow. But very probably many legacy institutions will cling to the fees because it’s easy money.

Some credit unions have worked up their own ways to help members dodge overdrafts – Hope Credit Union tell about its tools in this podcast – but many smaller institutions don’t know exactly how to handle this issue.

So they charge overdraft fees, the old school style.

It hurts consumers. It’s terrible for a financial institution’s reputation. But it is easy money.

So now third party work arounds are in the mix.

For the consumer the message is simple: you can keep your legacy checking account but make yourself immune to overdraft fees.


Meet Grain Technology, a Northern California based start up on a mission to stamp out overdraft fees and, in the process, help thin file consumers create credit histories.  Win win.

For the participating credit union, it’s plug and play. The member links the sharedraft account to Grain and Grain takes care of the rest.

And Grain has been invited to play in the Arizona fintech sandbox where it is allowed to pilot its tools freed from some regulatory constraints. The company already has plans to offer its tools to students at Arizona State, the nation’s biggest university.

Exactly what does Grain do?  In a conversation with Carl Memnon, COO of Grain and a co-founder (hear the podcast here), the details emerged.

The building blocks are that Grain takes a new look at the consumer’s spending habits, income, expenses. It generates a proprietary algorithm. This lets it predict when a consumer’s linked checking account is likely to go into overdraft and Grain can offer an injection of cash to inoculate against an overdraft fee.

The charge? Grain sees its APR ranging from 12% to 15.99% and it envisions cash injections typically ranging from maybe $25 to a few hundred dollars.

Result one: no more overdraft fees.

Result two: the consumer builds a credit history that Grain will report to monitoring agencies.  For a thin file young adult that just may be a real blessing. Especially since many of those generations are averse to using conventional credit instruments.

Right now Grain is looking to partner with credit unions that want to help members sidestep overdraft fees. Most of those consumers, said Memnon, probably will come from the money center banks (with overdraft fees typically around $35 per incident).

What would prompt a B of A customer to ditch that institution in favor of a much smaller credit union? Just one overdraft fee could do it.  Especially when the recruitment pitch is that this tool will stop overdraft fees, period.

Memnon said Grain also envisions sharing its interest income with participating institutions.

All while essentially living up to the credit union mission of helping consumers manage their money better.

Find out more about Grain here:

Listen to the CU2.0 podcast with Grain here.

Can You Trust Zelle?

By Robert McGarvey


Big banks have rushed to embrace Zelle – the new breed person to person payment tool – and credit unions too are joining the queue.

And now there is news about rising rates of fraud and criminality involving Zelle.

Time for a rethink?

First off, why Zelle?  Part of the answer is in the immensity of its primary backers, such as Chase, Bank of America, Citi, Capital One, Wells Fargo, USAA, and a handful of credit unions including BECU, First Tech, Schools First, Star One. Many more institutions – credit unions included – are in the queue to go live.

Zelle makes it very easy to send money to anyone with an email account or mobile phone number and a bank account.  No Zelle account is needed.

Some years ago I tried an experiment where I sent small payments to people using services such as Dwolla and the redemption rate was about zero. People asked me if I’d been co-opted by Nigerian scammers.  They just did not want to pick up money involving a service they hadn’t heard of.

Zelle is hard to not have heard of. A lot of TV ads and digital ads support it.

And then there’s how easy it is to get the cash.

Consider this a death warning to legacy but clunky services such as PopMoney.

But the trigger that launched Zelle was the PayPal fueled fire around Venmo which, out of nowhere, had emerged as the p2p tool of choice.  Bankers had snorted at tools like PopMoney but Venmo was different – users liked it, it had fintech heritage, and suddenly p2p was gaining the kind of enthusiasm many had predicted for it but that had stubbornly not materialized.

Bankers decided they needed their own weapon and thus Zelle, which in 2017 moved an estimated $75 billion, twice as much as Venmo, and the scariest bit is that this is plainly early days for Zelle.  Thought of a trillion dollar market is not far-fetched. Pymnts offered this dazzling buffet of Zelle stats: “Earlier this year, Zelle revealed that on average, close to 100,000 customers signed up each day for 2017. It also said it processed more than 247 million payments last year, which marks a 45 percent jump from 2016. It handled a total of $75 billion in peer-to-peer (P2P) payments in 2017, a significant increase from the $55 billion it made the year before.”

And now there are the stories about Zelle as a platform for fraudsters. The New York Times dropped the biggest bomb in a piece that began this way: “Big banks are making it easy to zap money to your friends. Maybe too easy.”

The Times continued: “Interviews with more than two dozen customers who had their money stolen through Zelle illustrate the weaknesses that criminals are using in targeting the network. While all financial systems are susceptible to fraud, aspects of Zelle’s design, like not always notifying customers when money is transferred — some banks do; others don’t — have contributed to the system’s vulnerability.”

Time to re-think Zelle? Not so fast.  Three years ago I wrote a piece for The Street headlined: “Are Peer-to-Peer Money Transfer Apps Unsafe to Use? Worries Focus on Venmo.”

The story started this way: “The Internet has been abuzz for a couple weeks with chatter about documented cases of theft of money from accounts of users of Venmo, the p2p (peer-to-peer) money transfer app that had been the the fast growing darling of Millennials.

One user, in a story reported in Slate, had $2,850 looted from a Chase checking account.”

Sound familiar? Indeed, it sounds exactly like the Zelle growing pains.  Regarding Venmo back then, PayPal told me they had moved fast to put in more security. File this under problem solved was their message.

Similar is getting said about Zelle.  Lou Anne Alexander, head of payments at Early Warning which runs Zelle, told the New York Times: “When there is a problem, we and the banks are proactive. It’s not something we’re putting our heads in the sand about.”

A lot is riding on Zelle for the banks and credit unions that embrace it.

There’s no present reason for a financial institution to panic about Zelle. If fraud reports continue and multiply, by all means, get worried. But for now this all sounds like growing pains and there are enough grown ups in the room to put in the needed fixes.

Color me optimistic.

How Safe Is Your Personal Data at Your Favorite Hotel?


By Robert McGarvey


All of us are atwitter about perceived loss of privacy when it comes to the acres of our thoughts, photos, outbursts that we have posted to Facebook and which, apparently, could be harvested by third party buyers.  

But just maybe business travelers have a much bigger worry that should consume them: the safety of their personal data that is in the hands of the hotels where we sleep.

“Bigger?” Yes, definitely.

And that is not to minimize the size of the Facebook mess.  If you want to see how to check what data Facebook has on you – just about everything you’ve done since you signed up – and with whom it has shared much of it – just about anything with a checkbook – read Brian Chen’s NYTimes piece on this.  It’s quite easy to check and, in my case, I got my file from Facebook literally a few minutes after requesting it.  I’m not a terribly prolific Facebooker – your mileage may vary. Did I see anything that made me sick? Nope, but I have always been prudent about what I posted to Facebook, mainly because I understood that the business model of the free Internet services is to harvest user data and sell it to marketers and fellow travelers.  That is baked in. I am not sure there is a way around it. (Read my 2000 interview in MIT’s Technology Review with Google’s founders.)

Back to your hotel worry. Hotel lawyer Jim Butler wrote this: “Protecting guests’ information (and employees’ information) from hackers is one of the biggest business challenges faced by hotel owners today. ”

Hotel breaches have been epidemic in recent years.  Here are many accounts.  

Traditionally the focus have been on theft by hackers of information involving credit and debit cards used at hotels – and bars, restaurants and gift shops have been notoriously porous, so have loyalty programs – but what if the bigger concern is, well, your private info?

You check into the hotel.  You watch four hours of porn (maybe there’s a Stormy Daniels festival?). Drain the minibar’s Scotch.  Get in a loud, verbal argument with security over the volume of your TV. Maybe you go full gonzo and you use the in-room phone call up a local escort service for a little company.

Okay, that’s not you, nor me, but I have known business travelers who have done pretty much all of the above.

Here’s the rub: a good hotelier gets good by noting and collecting guest preferences.  I have a friend who told me he swore by Four Seasons because he personally dotes on very soft pillows, hates wool anything, and doesn’t like a bed covered with decorative pillows. Apparently Four Seasons noted his interests because as he traveled from city to city whatever Four Seasons he checked into knew his preferences and of course if he were forced into, say, a Ritz Carlton, they didn’t. And he grumbled accordingly.

Just how safe is that kind of data?  Could clever hackers find it?

All that kind of data is what data scientists call big data. And big data has emerged as a key to delivering us the personalized services we want without us having to ask.

Understand: credit card data falls under specific federal guidelines. It has to be handled with deliberate care.

That’s not necessarily so regarding guest preference data – big data – and a lot of it is not encrypted, not put under a meaningful lock and key.

Front Desk anywhere, in a blog post, noted: “For too long, the hotel sector has been viewed as a soft target by hackers seeking to steal guest data. While some hoteliers take guest data security seriously, there are still too many operators using inadequate technology and processes to fully protect data.”

Some hotel groups in fact promise to do a good job protecting your data. Here’s the Accor policy : “Confidentiality and security: We will ensure reasonable technical and organizational measures are in place to protect your personal data against alteration or accidental or unlawful loss, or unauthorized use, disclosure or access.”

Word of caution: ask at the hotels where you stay what the policies regarding guest preference data storage.  Be clear: we are not talking about credit cards. We’re talking about bedding and the many other little things that when they are done our way make a hotel stay much more comfortable.

The EU, incidentally, has a get tough attitude about data privacy.  Many companies that do business in Europe say they have brought those policies here.  And maybe some actually have.

If you have doubts about your data, ask and keep asking.

Personally, I want hotels where I stay often to remember me and to provide my preferences unasked. That’s what great hoteliers have always done and today’s big data tools make it easier to collect and share the random bits of information that shape who we are as a hotel guest.

I am all for that, when the data are shared within the hotels where I frequently bunk.

I just don’t want hackers to know what kind of pillows I like. 

Would you?


Mortgage Business at Risk in the Digital Age


By Robert McGarvey

For Credit Union 2.0


Put the new Bank of America 2018 Homebuyers Insight Report high on your reading pile.  And you may find yourself reading it as a contemporary horror story. That’s because the central message of the report is that today technology has become inextricably intertwined with the homebuying process.

The question for a lot of credit unions has to be: can we continue to hold onto any mortgage business?

Steven Boland, head of consumer lending at Bank of America, wrote in the report: “Perhaps the biggest takeaway [in this report] is that NextGen technologies are here today, and their influence will continue to grow. Many buyers report they are already comfortable using technology throughout their homebuying journey, with room for evolution. Over the next decade, many even predict open houses will only be done through virtual reality.”

The future is coming, ready or not.

Credit unions have been gobbling up marketshare in mortgage origination.  Will that last?

In 2005 credit unions had about 1.9% of mortgages.  In 2014 that had grown to 8.3% according to CUNA.

But in recent years the headline in the mortgage business has been the rocketing growth of non banks such as Quicken which now has a bigger share than Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Non banks in fact now grab five of the top 10 spots in mortgage origination. And Quicken Loans is in 1st place.

What is going on is found in the B of A homebuying report and that is why it is critical reading for credit unions that want to continue to stake a role in first mortgage residential originations.

A number that jumps off the page: 32% of us told B of A we are comfortable applying for a mortgage online.  

Just 20% of us like online dating.  Only 37% are comfortable shopping for groceries online.  

Think on that. Almost as many who are comfortable buying kibble and chickpeas online are comfortable with applying for a mortgage online.

The majority – 52% – of those who are comfortable with applying for a mortgage online are or already have done.

Personally I got a mortgage, via USAA, almost entirely online in 2013. In 2004 I did similar with Countrywide.  The tools exist, they work, and at least to me the online process is more comfortable and faster than doing it in a bank or credit union office.  A bonus is that at home I have all the necessary paperwork on hand. I honestly cannot imagine going through a mortgage application at a remote office.

And more of us are coming to think similarly.

The data goes on.  According to B of A, “92 percent agree that technology makes them feel more in control of their financial decisions. They also see technology playing a role during every stage of the homebuying journey.”

One interesting data point from B of A: 4% of us say we’d make a home purchase offer based only upon an online review of the property.

Surprised it’s that many? I’m surprised it’s that few. In 2004 I sold a home in Tucson to a buyer in Hawaii who had seen the house only online. She made a full price offer.  She did want a contingency where she could pull out at closing if the house had been presented deceptively. I knew it hadn’t been, I consented, and at closing she did the deal.

Expect more changes. According to B of A, in the next 10 years 55% of us expect the mortgage process to be paperless.   I’m surprised that isn’t 90%.

53% expect the process can be completed within a few days.  Note: some lenders already promise same day approvals and that will become the new norm. Some promise approval in minutes.  

6% of us expect appraisals to be done by drones in the next 10 years.  Count me in the 6%, at least for production houses and condos. Already many appraisals are drive-bys.  A drone is just an extension of that trend.

What’s the lesson to learn from these many data points? The main one is: go digital. Make sure your credit union has an online application process that works. Really. Honestly. Ideally, both in a mobile app and online – but definitely online.

Lack of a good online mortgage app is becoming a deal breaker for many.

How good is yours? Get a half dozen friends – not credit union employees – to go through the online process. Gather their feedback. Did any quit in exasperation?  How many made it to the finish line? How long did it take them. (And do cancel out all the apps before the process moves to the next stages or you will lose friends.)

Don’t be shocked if there are loud grumbles about your online mortgage processes.  That may be the credit union norm. But it’s not good enough. Not today. Definitely not tomorrow.

We are coming to a time, very soon, when most mortgage applicants will expect to do this online, just as the vast majority of credit card customers expect.

That is tomorrow’s reality.  Get ready for it today.


Can You Om Your Way to Airplane Comfort?


by Robert McGarvey


Can you om your way to happiness at 30,000 feet? Or at least to a state of heightened comfort?

That is the question that popped into my mind when I saw a story in Well + Good headlined, “Finally Airplanes Are Doing Something to Make Flying Less Stressful.”  The story’s pitch: airlines are taking steps to, well, make flying less stressful.

Are they giving us more pitch in coach? Making seats wider? Filling fewer seats? Pouring decent and free drinks? Serving edible – real – food?

None of the above.  Apparently – and Well + Good cites a NYTimes piece as backup – airlines led by United and JetBlue now are offering free access during flights to the popular meditation app Headspace.

Headspace is an entirely sincere meditation app company that has won substantial success as a paid app.  It’s gotten acres of press.  The basic plan is a monthly subscription ($12.99/month, or $7.99/month on an annual subscription) and lots of people praise it.

I’m not putting Headspace down.

I’m not putting meditation down.  I’ve personally put in hundreds of hours meditating at Shambhala’s Chelsea space and I have pointed a number of friends there.

No, I am not a meditation basher.

But when I read that United Airlines – that United, of Dr. Dao infamy and the recent death of a little dog — thinks that if we meditate we may be more tolerant of the airline’s gaffes, well, no.  Count me out.

Other airlines also are piling onto meditation, reported Well + Good. BA, apparently, has an inflight entertainment channel that offers meditations.  Swiss Air and Cathay also have offerings.

Let me inject some skepticism. As a veteran of many hours on the cushions at Shambhala I can assure you that – even with excellent in-person instructors leading small programs – it takes a lot of practice to begin to get the hang of meditating.

How does it go wrong? Let me count the ways. The essential issue is that to successfully meditate one must still the mind – in Shambhala’s case this revolves around a focus on the breath – and that just is not easy for a beginner.

It is especially not easy in a stressful situation and flying in today’s crowded coach, with grumpy passengers and not enough space, is a prescription for a stressful situation.

Go ahead, try to hold focus for 10 minutes. You probably can’t. If you get to five when you are beginning, kudos to you. You’re a natural.

Longtime meditators, many of them, have trouble going beyond 20 minute sessions.

How long is that flight, by the way?

Meantime, I’m looking at a 2015 article in Fortune that said “The average seat pitch, a rough measure of legroom, has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has shriveled from 18 inches to about 16 ½.”

Pitch on some airlines has fallen to as little as 28″.

You think meditation will help you with that?

In India, there are holy men called sadhus who are said to be able to meditate for years. Some even master lying on a literal bed of nails (photos here). I suppose that being able to like a bed of nails might be a good prerequisite for a flyer in 2018 coach.

But is that a reason to take up meditation?

Personally, I really, really dislike seeing wonderfully good things – and meditation is one of them – co-opted by companies that deploy them in what looks to me like an attempt to get us to accept unpleasant accommodations.

“Stop your whining and meditate!” That is the only way I can interpret what some airlines seem to be practicing. It certainly is cheaper to shovel a meditation app our way than to actually address the deplorable conditions in coach.

Incidentally, there are many dozens of meditation apps – some free – in both Google Play and the Apple App Store.  Download a few, try them out, make it a DIY project. You don’t need an airline’s nudge.

Here’s a free YouTube video where Shambhala founder Chogyam Trungpa teaches meditation.

Here’s a short how-to write up by Trungpa.

You just may find meditation is exactly the thing for our age of stresses.

As for the matter at hand, can I personally attest that my hours of meditation study have made me a happier flyer?  I cannot.

But an unexpected upgrade to business class still works magic on my mood.


Hotels Want To Upsell You – Do You Want to Buy?

by Robert McGarvey


Research via PhocusWright pinpoints what the company identifies as a major revenue opportunity for hoteliers – and what may become a major annoyance for us.

Here’s the punchy headline: A $28 Billion Opportunity for Hotels.

I shudder to think how annoying every hotel stay is about to get in an attempt to sell us all manner of ancillary services.

The model – the source of hotelier envy – is that airlines rake in billions selling us everything from beer to snacks, credit cards, and better seats.  Airline estimated ancillary revenues are above $80 billion globally – the top 10 carriers alone took in north of $28 billion in 2017, more than tenfold more than in 2007.

A flight on many carriers in coach increasingly resembles a stroll down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan.  Maybe without the counterfeit gear. But certainly with all the brazen hustle and salesmanship.

Do you want your hotel stays to be similar experiences?

PhocusWright sets the table this way: “[H]otels are increasingly turning toward the sale
of ancillary goods and services to help drive additional revenue. For hotels, the phrase ‘ancillaries’ typically refers to optional guest add-on products and services…. These may take the form of in-hotel ancillaries, such as room upgrades, food and beverage services, additional in-room amenities or spa/wellness/entertainment products offered by the property itself. Alternatively, ancillaries may also include in-destination ancillaries such as sightseeing tours, car rental, transfers or event tickets, typically provided by third parties.”

What do I want from a hotel room on a business trip? A place to sleep, a place to do some work (ideally a desk but I’m flexible – a decent chair and lighting will suffice), good WiFi, probably a lobby coffee shop (or – better still – one outside within a short walk), and that’s about it.

I have never bought spa/wellness/entertainment products from a hotel, at least never for myself.  I have never bought sightseeing tours, not on a business trip (in London, yes, on vacation).  I have never bought event tickets.  And I generally seek to avoid hotel f & b, unless I am very pressed for time.

Color me a bad candidate for upselling.

What about you?

PhocusWright, which surveyed a large number of consumers, said that in fact we are eager to buy ancillary products and services.  “A substantial potential market currently exists for both in-hotel and especially for in-destination ancillary products and services. Two types of on-property offerings – dining at the hotel and early check-in/late checkout – are the most popular services that consumers would be willing to pre-book from hotels. However, guests are also open to purchasing a diverse range of alternative, externally provided products and services, including museum/attraction tickets, sightseeing or other tours, event tickets and transportation.”

I read that and am speechless, almost.  Very, very few hotel restaurants are so busy that it requires advance booking to snag a table and what’s hard about making one’s way to the Metropolitan Museum in NY or the Heard in Phoenix? A few museums make advanced booking highly desirable – I’m thinking of the Uffizi in Rome but we simply booked ourselves online a few days before.

*If* a ticket is hard to get – think Hamilton when it was Broadway’s darling – I would gladly have tipped, generously, a concierge who could have delivered seats, but PhocusWright seems to be talking about hotels acquiring easy to come by ducats and marking them up.

Who needs that?

PhocusWright continued: “Facilitating the pre-booking of in-destination ancillary products and services clearly represents an interesting opportunity for U.S. hotels. Eighty-one percent of respondents indicated that they had participated in a bookable in-destination activity during their last trip. The most popular of these activities were day trips, excursions and sightseeing tours (42%); visiting museums, galleries or cultural attractions (30%); and outdoor activities (28%).”

Mind you, iSeatz, which sponsored the research and just a few days ago replayed it on Tnooz, insisted that “the majority of business travelers surveyed are very interested in purchasing either on-site or off-site extras. The research also identifies business traveler segments and details the preferences on when, where, and what extras business travelers are interested in buying.”


iSeatz continued in Tnooz: “many business travelers are interested in booking products such as trip cancellation insurance (45%), high-speed wi-fi (41%), parking (41%), transportation options (23%), and museum/attraction tickets (25%) at the time that they are booking their stay.”

Nah. I just don’t buy this, and I don’t see business travelers buying much on this list. Okay, I can in fact see business travelers purchasing late check out or early check in, room upgrades, and airport transfers.

But most of the upsells are just annoyances.

That’s why my hope is that hoteliers bury this report and ignore its findings.

But – shudder – I doubt they will.


The 50 Most Convenient Credit Unions


By Robert McGarvey


For Credit Union 2.0


Did your credit union make the 50 most convenient list?  Stop wondering, click to see the MagnifyMoney ranking.

What this ranking is about is how easy it is for a member to access the services he/she wants, when he wants them, and so it looks at both the analog and digital worlds, branches and mobile apps, among other touchpoints.

Understand a couple things about the ranking: it ranks only the 50 biggest credit unions and, according to the data, the top rated credit union notched 90 points out of a possible 100. The lowest rated pulled down only 46.6 points.

That represents a huge spread.  The #1 credit union in this convenience scorecard – Alliant – literally grabbed twice as many points as the lowest scorer, Mountain America.

There may well be many more credit unions, outside the biggest 50, that also outscore Mountain America.

So what exactly is getting scored?  MagnifyMoney looked at 5 fields: opening hours (more means more points); how many ATMs; telephone service hours; mobile app (how satisfied are users); and data portability (do accounts sync with Quicken, etc.)?

A complaint about that group of five is that different members want very different touchpoints. I couldn’t care less about branch hours because I live around 2500 miles from the nearest branch at my chief credit union.  I care only about digital access. But I have relatives who care only about branches and phone services. So it makes sense that MagnifyMoney sifts different channels.

It also breaks out top 10 scores in each category.  Here, for instance, are the top five scorers for mobile app:  Eastman Credit Union; ESL Federal Credit Union; Redstone Federal Credit Union; SEFCU; Wright-Patt Credit Union.

Here are the credit unions with the best surcharge-free ATM coverage: Alliant Federal Credit Union; Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union; Northwest Federal Credit Union; OnPoint Community Credit Union; Suncoast Federal Credit Union; Wings Financial Credit Union and Wright-Patt Credit Union.

As for longest hours, the winner is Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union, with 59.9 hours per week.

You want 24/7 access? MagnifyMoney found a handful of top 50 credit unions that in fact offer exactly that via phone: Alaska USA Federal Credit Union

  • Alliant Credit Union
  • BECU
  • Delta Community Credit Union
  • First Technology Federal Credit Union
  • Navy Federal Credit Union
  • Redwood Credit Union
  • Security Service Federal Credit Union

How did credit unions do as a whole? MagnifyMoney co-founder Brian Karimzad said that generally credit unions are not competitive with big banks on branch opening hours and telephone service hours. But, in the other categories, credit unions do very well.  Shared ATM networks – via CO-OP and CuLiance, for instance – give participants ATM networks numbering in the many thousands and those are numbers that stand tall against the ATM fleets of the biggest banks (more than 15,000 each at Chase and Bank of America; CuLiance claims more than 75,000 surcharge-free ATMs in its network).

As for how credit unions fare on convenience against other credit unions Karimzad stressed that there are “wide disparities.”  But the key is providing what matters to this member. A generic score is good to know but where the pedal hits this metal is in measuring how convenient the credit union is to this member.

Karimzad, incidentally, said in an interview that MagnifyMoney readers express a lot of interest in credit unions, usually because credit unions typically offer some of the best deals on loans, credit cards, and similar.  The movement already has significant recognition for its highly competitive rates.

And maybe now more consumers will understand that credit unions also can be very competitive on convenience, too. The reputation endures that credit unions keep short, banker’s hours, are laggards in technology, and are nearly impossible to join. The reality of course is very different.

And that’s why, despite the quibbles, it’s a good thing that rankings such as MagnifyMoney’s convenience scorecard get out the message that in many ways credit unions equal – maybe even beat – banks when it comes to how easy they are to use.

The more consumers that get that, the better for all credit unions.

Now, where did your credit union rank?