Best VPN for International Travel [2019]

During your travels, you might have noticed that some countries block websites or limit media because of government censorship laws. Luckily, VPNs exist and they can be used to counter censorship, increase your privacy on open networks, and change your internet location with one click.

In this article, I go over why VPNs are needed during your travels, key features that VPNs should have, and what VPNs are the best.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for “virtual private network”. Simply put, the VPN connection you create will encrypt your data from your device to a server that then decrypts your data. Once your packets (aka data) are decrypted it then gets routed to the internet.

Think of it as a private tunnel from your device to a server that allows you to bypass government, ISP (internet service provider), or other lurkers spying on the local network or between your device and the internet.

Use cases for a VPN can be endless like using a VPN on open public wifi or when you want to access content when it’s blocked by an ISP or government.

You could be wanting to access Google in China. As we all know, Google is blocked in China. So, you connect to a VPN that allows you to connect to the internet that isn’t blocked as the VPN server you are connected to would be outside of China.

For example, I connect to a VPN server in Hong Kong and visit Google on my device. When I am connected to a VPN all my data goes through the VPN server in Hong Kong before it goes to me or Google.

Therefore, all data between my device and the VPN server will be a secret to China as only myself and my VPN server will have a secret key that decrypts my data. However, any data between the VPN server and websites (Google in this example) would be decrypted as it’s now the regular internet.

Basically, a VPN is a network that is all about hiding before it goes outside to the internet, hence the name virtual private network.

Down below I explain everything you need to know about a VPN during your travels all around the world and at home.

Why should I use a VPN during my travels?

VPNs can be used for many different reasons, but during your travels, you might realize that some countries block certain sites you use every day. Sometimes a VPN can be useful to make the website think you’re in another country. Then there are public wifi networks where there is no password making it easy to intercept your internet traffic with ARP spoofing attacks.

No matter if your goal is to avoid censorship or virtually move to the other side of the globe, you can do it with a VPN.

Avoid website censorship and blocks

You might be aware of some countries that block websites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Netflix, and Wikipedia to name a few. Mainland China, in particular, has the “Great Firewall of China” which blocks many of our favorite sites, like all that I listed above. If you want to see all the websites blocked in Mainland China, you can find the list here.

Good VPNs are able to bypass any country’s censorship and blocks. Very good VPNs are able to work within China bypassing the Great Firewall or other countries’ website blockers. 

For example, I was in Turkey in October and they blocked Wikipedia, so I had to use a VPN to access Wikipedia. Then when you are in Indonesia, Telkomsel (a cell phone service provider and ISP) blocks Netflix.

So, all you have to do is turn on the VPN and connect to a VPN server outside of the country you are in to access blocked sites and content.

A VPN can easily bypass the country or ISP that blocks certain websites making it easy to keep your regular internet habits.

Virtually move your location

VPNs give you the ability to change your server that you connect to. So, you could connect to a server in Japan making you have the appearance of being in Japan when you are sitting at home in the USA.

Why would you ever want to connect to a server in another country?

Well, once you select a VPN server in another country, websites will think you are in that country. When you are connecting to a server in another country, websites or services will display content based on the location of the VPN server you are connected to.

Netflix is a good example of a service that has different content libraries in each country. So, the US Netflix library is different than the Japan Netflix library.

In the past, this has also been a way to take advantage of cheaper airfare tickets that go on sale in a given country (though this method does come with some risk).

VPNs allow you to virtually appear like you are in another country.

Public and open wifi networks aren’t secure

When you are connected to a public or open wifi network, anyone can see what websites you visit. Luckily, people cannot see what you are exactly doing on the website, but they can see the website name. Some older websites or apps might not be secure enough making everything you do on that website visible. A VPN basically wraps your internet traffic in a secure packet that you and your VPN service have the key for.

Think of the VPN acting like a secure line between you and the VPN server you are connected to so people on the same wifi network cannot see what you are doing.

Then there is the risk of ARP spoofing attacks (basically someone creating a clone of the open wifi network that intercepts your internet traffic.) ARP spoofing attacks are less of an issue now, but if someone is spoofing a wifi network, it would mean they can see everything you are doing without you ever knowing. 

Open wifi networks are still super common. Hotels use open wifi networks. Airports use open wifi networks. Coffee shops use open wifi networks. The list can go on, but a VPN will hide all your traffic from anyone else trying to look at network traffic as all they will see is an encrypted packet.

Key features that VPNs should have

Various server locations

VPNs most importantly need various server locations so you can connect to the closest VPN server for the best speeds.

If you were in Mainland China, a VPN provider that has a VPN server in Hong Kong is important as that would be one of the best location for a VPN server when you are in China. However, if you were in Europe, connecting to the Hong Kong server would create latency which impacts your speeds. Therefore, VPN server locations within Europe would be important. 

So, when looking for a VPN provider, you should check if they have VPN servers in the country you are visiting or nearby countries.

Unlimited bandwidth and data

No matter if it’s your home ISP, cell service provider, or a VPN, unlimited bandwidth is key for consistent speeds without throttling or limits.

If you have limited bandwidth, which is typical with free VPN providers, you will find that speeds are sometimes slow. With limited data, then one Netflix movie in HD could eat up most of your data.

Having unlimited bandwidth and data will keep your VPN experience consistent without any hiccups.

Which VPN is the best for traveling?

There are many VPNs in the market place. I personally use VPNs consistently no matter where I am in the world. I have a few important things that I look for in a VPN:

  • Consistent fast speeds
  • Wide server footprint
  • Netflix capable servers
  • Unlimited bandwidth and data


One of my favorite VPN providers has to be ExpressVPN. I have personally been using ExpressVPN for four years now as I originally got it during my trip to China back in 2015.

Now I use it regularly during my travels and at home as speeds are consistent with plentiful servers on every continent. ExpressVPN offers 3,000+ servers in 160 locations and 94 countries. I never had an issue finding a nearby server during my travels. 

ExpressVPN offers unlimited bandwidth and data. You can also have five simultaneous connections on five different devices at a time.

It offers Netflix and Hulu capable servers in various countries like the US, Canada, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Japan making it easy to access Netflix and other country’s libraries. 

ExpressVPN has easy to use apps on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and other devices. With the app, you can see all the locations that have ExpressVPN servers or run speed test on your Windows or Mac app to determine which server will be the fastest from where you are at that moment. ExpressVPN also offers a feature called “Smart Location” for a one-click connection to a nearby premium server without the hassle of finding a server.

You can also manually set up the VPN on other devices without installing an app. 

I guess the only negative thing about ExpressVPN is the price.

  • 1-month plan: $12.95
  • 6-month plan: $59.95
  • 12-month plan: $99.95

While there are certainly cheaper VPNs out there, ExpressVPN is the one of the most consistent VPNs out there. And as someone that works online, I need consistency. You can learn more about ExpressVPN here.

Other VPN providers

ExpressVPN certainly isn’t the only VPN provider on the market.


Another global VPN provider is VyprVPN. It’s known for bypassing the Great Firewall of China and other countries that censor websites and content with their Chameleon technology.

Servers are widespread across the globe, but fewer than ExpressVPN. With a total of 700+ servers in over 60 countries, you won’t have to worry about being too far from a VPN server. Plus, unlimited bandwidth and data are in every plan.

Servers in the US, Canada, and the UK support Netflix and Hulu.

There are two plans, vyprvpn and vyprvpn premium. The premium version is substantially better than the regular vyprvpn plan as the premium one offers Chameleon protocol for bypassing country censorships and 5 simultaneous connections. The prices for the premium plan are:

  • $80 for one year
  • $12.95 for one month

VyprVPN is a good alternative to ExpressVPN for world coverage and bypassing censorships. You can learn more here.

NordVPN (aka the fallen)

You probably have heard of NordVPN before. It’s usually the most frequently advertised VPN on the market.

Unfortunately, NordVPN had a server attack by a hacker. It wasn’t targeted at NordVPN as two other VPN providers had been attacked the same day. However, NordVPN wasn’t aware of the attack since they used a third-party datacenter. 

The third-party datacenter failed to notify NordVPN making NordVPN unaware of the breach. Once NordVPN was made aware of the breach, they terminated their contract with the third-party data center and did a security audit of all their servers. This attack was on one server out of 3,000+ in their whole network at the time.

However, there is something slightly unsettling. NordVPN claims no user credentials were leaked, but reports note that 2,000 user credentials were leaked and a couple was still valid. The credentials that got leaked had emails and plain-text passwords.

With all of this known, can NordVPN be recommended? 

Maybe, it can be. While it wasn’t my favorite VPN, it is still fast and worldwide. NordVPN has 5000+ servers worldwide in 59 countries. It also bypasses a country’s firewall like China or others. Plus, it supports Netflix on servers in the US, Canada, Germany, UK, France, and Italy.

Prices aren’t too bad and still cheaper than ExpressVPN. NordVPN always discounts its service with prices like:

  • 1-month plan: $11.95
  • 1-year plan: $84.88
  • 2-year plan: $119.76
  • 3-year plan: $125.64

NordVPN was and is still a good VPN. Would it be my first choice? No, I think there are better VPNs and find it surprising that a breach happened like this with user account information in plain-text with no encryption.

The best free VPN

Most modern routers will have a VPN server feature built-in. So, you could be in Mainland China and create a VPN server on your router that can handle multiple connections so you can access any website just as if you were in the US.

This method works just fine if you have a solid internet connection in your home with at least 100mbps download and 20mbps upload. Now, this won’t be the fastest VPN solution, but it’s free and would work better than other free VPN providers as there would always be bandwidth limitations and data caps.

Final word

I think VPNs are important when you travel as open wifi networks and censorship is still an issue. Sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry when using a VPN in public places.


25 (Easy to Use) Travel Hacking Tools You Should Be Using [2018]

There are tons of travel hacking tools out there and I’m a huge fan of many of them. But there’s a number of tools that I really like and use quite often. These tools can help you find out how to better utilize your points, pick the right seat on a plane, plan your trips like a pro, and much, much more.

And what’s best is that most of these tools are free and very easy to use. So here’s my list of 25 travel hacking tools you should be using.   

Interested in finding out the hottest travel credit cards for this month? Click here to check them out! 

1. AwardHacker

AwardHacker has gotten very popular over the past year or two and it’s one of my top travel hacking tools. It allows you to input destinations (cities and airports) and then select your search criteria such as cabin class and one-way or roundtrip, etc.

It will then pull up the required miles for a lot of different rewards programs (but not every single one). This makes is very easy to sort out which redemptions are the cheapest and to see exactly how many miles you’ll have to rack up for your desired award flight.

It’s also great because it shows you which programs (SPG, Amex, etc.) transfer out tho those respective airlines, allowing you to more easily plan out your redemptions.

I double check the amounts shown just to be on the safe side but the tool has been very accurate and saves me considerable time especially since I used to have to comb through dozens of award charts to compare the prices.

2. is another similar travel hacking tool you can look into using as well. It’s a nice tool because it breaks down the data a little differently than AwardHacker. You can see the ranges for the programs that offer off-peak and peak times in graph form which is convenient since you can see how drastic the price swings are.

It also gives you an estimate on the surcharges based on a scale of one to four.  When you click on the search results you can see the different airlines that fly on that route and the airport routing as well.

One cool feature about Awardace is that you can punch in your origin along with the number of points in a specific airline program and it can give you suggestions on how to efficiently use your points based on the type of class you want to fly on and whether or not you want to book a roundtrip or one way.

3. Flight Connections

For whatever reason a lot of people don’t talk about Flight Connections but it’s a great resource. I use this to help me see what’s possible for routing. It’s extremely helpful trying to put together complex itineraries and it’s played a major role in me planning round the world trips for myself and others.

You can click on any airport or just put in the airport code and it will show you all of the routes that fly to/from that airport. You can then click on a route and it will show you which airlines fly on that route and on which day of the week they fly it. I don’t know if it’s always updated but for me it’s been very accurate and this is one of my favorite tools.

4. Awardomatic

I love Awardomatic for easily searching for hotels in the different loyalty programs with its easy to use map interface.

You can filter down your searches to specific programs like Marriott, Hilton, etc. and filter them down further based on the amount of points you want to use. In my experience, it doesn’t always provide 100% accurate info so you always need to double check if it doesn’t show any property there but for the most part it still is very useful and I use it quite frequently.

5. Hotel Hustle

Hotel Hustle is another similar tool that shows even more properties and gives more info on the hotels, such as the cash price and pay with points + cash options. It even shows you how many cents per point you might be able to get on redemptions.

6. Sunflight will show you which side of the plane the sun will be on. If you’re like me and like to take aerial photos this is actually very handy sometimes as you’ll know where about to expect the sun to be and when in your flight the sunset/sunrise should be.

7. Visa Supplier Locator

The Visa Supplier Locator allows you to punch in an address, name, or zipcode and search based on Merchant Category Code (MCC). This can help you see how a merchant should code when you use your Visa card which can help you maximize your points.

8. Cravor

Cravor can be a good tool for finding deals at local restaurants along with what type of miles you can earn at those places with dining programs.

9. AutoSlash

AutoSlash is a must when you’re thinking about renting a car. This service will track rentals for you and will notify you when the price goes down, allowing you to save money with absolute minimal effort. They also can give you low prices on rental cars by applying discount codes you probably didn’t know existed.

10. Google Flights

Google Flights is an essential tool for award travel. It allows you to do a lot of filtering when searching for flights and I talk about all of the different features in this article here.

I like to use Google Flights to see the specific schedule for airlines and to see which type of aircraft they are flying on. It’s also great for scanning prices for flights and tracking them as well. And Google Flights is lightning quick considering how much data it delivers at a time.

11. ITA Matrix Software

The ITA Matrix Software is the engine that powers Google Flights but when you jump directly into it you can get even more advanced. It takes longer to learn the ins and outs of the ITA Matrix compared to Google Flights, but it can be a very powerful travel hacking tool. (You can read our guide here).

One way I commonly use the ITA Matrix is to find the surcharges for award flight by locating the YQ seen in the image below. Simply click on the price of a search result, and you’ll bring up the screen below.

Now look at the fee breakdown below from when I found this flight through the American Airlines AAdvantage website. Notice the carrier-imposed fees are the same as the YQ at $503.

This searching method is very useful for trying to estimate fees for awards that don’t show up online or that would otherwise require valuable time spent waiting on the phone for estimates (which they can’t always provide).

12. Flightaware

Flightaware is the go-to source for many aviation folks for tracking the current status of flights.

I’ve actually seen Flightaware update the status of flights to delayed before that status even shows up on the flight boards in airports so I really like to use Flightaware to check on the latest flight status. It also has a Misery Map so you can check where the most delays/cancellations are happening.

It’s also pretty incredible just to see how many planes are up in the US air space at any given moment.

13. GPS Visualizer

GPS Visualizer is a great tool for pulling up different kinds of data but I like to use it to pull up a large circle around airports to display a specific radius.

This helps when trying to maximize your points with distance-based award charts since you can see exactly how far a given zone can take you.

For example, the map below shows a 1,150 mile radius from DFW which is a cut-off tier on the British Airways award chart. I can then know that flights from DFW to Chicago are within this range but that flights to the West Coast are outside of this range and will require more miles.

Sometimes the distance-based award charts like British Airways and Iberia do their own thing with the distance-requirements so you’ll need to double check which routes fall in which zones but this tool will get you started with what you need.

14. Rome 2 Rio

The Rome 2 Rio Tool will help you figure out the logistics of how to get from point A to point B, whether you’re traveling by car, train, plane, etc. Being able to instantly see all of your transport options along with price ranges makes planning much more efficient and can save you money.

15. Seat Guru

Seat Guru is my go to source for seat maps so I can always see what the layout of a plane is going to be like. You can also view specific complaints that people have made about seats regarding things like the noise levels, legroom, and limited seat recline. I recommend you always checking with Seat Guru before you every select a seat.

16. Lounge Buddy

I use Lounge Buddy like crazy when planning or even while on round the world trips as it makes it so easy to see which lounges I can get into at each airport.

17. app

I know that Google maps has an offline mode but I’ve been using the app for a long time for my offline GPS needs and it’s been very reliable even in some places like small Caribbean islands where I didn’t think it would be much help. This isn’t so much a travel hacking tool but it’s helpful nonetheless.

18. Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a great resource for various research purposes but I use it to find out which destinations that airlines fly to and all of their partners/codeshare agreements. Sometimes it will tell you which destinations will be coming soon or which destinations are seasonal and I use that to help me plan future trips.

19. Where to credit

If you’ve just taken a flight where you paid for it and earned miles but you aren’t sure where to credit your miles to (which airline partner), then Where to Credit is the go-to tool. For best results, you’ll need to know the specific fare bucket you flew in but this is a great tool that will help you maximize your miles from revenue flights.

20. Travel Math

Travel Math is a cool tool that you can use to provide you with all sorts of different data for your travels. Whether it is for driving or flying, you can look up things like flight time and drive time and even compare the cost of driving versus flying. It’s a fun tool to just play around with.

21. Pointmize

Pointmize will help you find award hotels and will give you insight into whether or not the redemption prices are optimized or not. I only started recently using this tool but I think it’s a pretty cool way to maximize your hotel points.

22. Expert Flyer

I don’t use Expert Flyer but many people do because you can set up notifications for when certain seats open up on flights which can be super valuable. They have both a free version and a paid version.

23. Great Circle Mapper

This is the Great Circle Mapper tool to use for many purposes. It’s great for finding out the distances for your flights when using distance-based award charts but it’s also good for making maps of your flighting routes and for record keeping purposes.

24. Award Wallet

Award Wallet is a very popular product for keeping tabs on all of your miles. I actually don’t use it because I obsess over my miles and credit cards on a ridiculous level and so don’t need it. But if you don’t already have a system in place for keeping track of your miles you might want to look into Award Wallet.

25. SkyScanner

SkyScanner is a great travel hacking tool for quickly searching for flights with the cheapest prices. If you only enter an origin destination, you can hit search and compare prices to a lot of different destinations. Before I ever purchase a flight, I try to use this along with Google Flights or the ITA Matrix to make sure I’m getting a good deal on the price.

Final word

These travel hacking tools can be very useful and cut down the amount of time needed to scout out some of the best redemptions and can save you money and points. They are almost all very easy to use so there’s little to no learning curve for many of these tools. I suggest bookmarking this page and returning to it whenever you have some time to try out some of these great tools.

And if you have any suggestions for other tools let me know in the comments! 

Can You Renew Your Passport Online?

If you’re trying to learn how to renew your passport online you’re in luck. Well, partially in luck. That’s because you can’t actually renew your US passport online but you can get almost everything you need online and easily send in the forms to renew your passport via mail. In this article I’m going to show you step by step how easy it is to renew your passport using documents found online.

You can’t do it all online

As stated, you can’t just click a button and have a new passport out on its way to you. Instead, you’ll have to print out some forms, take a passport photo, and send in your passport via mail.


You can only renew your US passport by mail if the following is true.

You passport:

  • Is submitted with your application
  • Is undamaged (other than normal “wear and tear”)
  • Was issued when you were age 16 or older
  • Was issued within the last 15 years
  • Was issued in your current name (or you can document your name change with an original or certified copy of your marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order)

If any of the above statements do not hold true to you, then you must Apply in Person using form DS-11.

So as long as you’re eligible to renew your passport, then all you have to do is:

  • Fill out this Form DS-82
  • Submit your US Passport (yes, you have to actually mail your passport in)
  • Include name change documents (if needed)
  • Include your photo
  • Calculate your fees
  • Mail off your form

Where to get a passport photo?

6 months old

First, keep in mind that the image of you should have been taken within the last sixth months.

I don’t think your passport is going to be denied if your photo is one day older than 6 months, but try to keep things reasonable. If you’ve got a head full of gray hairs but your photo looks like you were at your high school prom, there’s going to be a problem.

Get your passport photos at a pharmacy

You can go to a local drug store like CVS or Walgreens and ask them to take your passport photos for your and print them out. It only takes a few minutes for them to do it but it will cost you around $12. Some feel that’s too expensive but others value the convenience of the process.

Doing it yourself

There are a several ways you can take your passport photo yourself.

You can use apps to assist you with taking the photos. For example, there’s the Passport Booth App for Apple and Android and also ID PhotoPrint.

Keep in mind that if you take your passport photo by yourself using a digital camera, phone, or app, you’ll have to make sure that you abide by the criteria below. Some people don’t like bothering with all of that so paying $12 at a pharmacy could be worth it for them.

Here are the passport photo guidelines:

  • Submit a color photograph of you alone, sufficiently recent to be a good likeness of you (taken within the last six months),
  • 2×2 inches in size.
  • The image size measured from the bottom of your chin to the top of your head (including hair) should not be less than 1 inch, and not more than 1 3/8 inches.
  • The photograph must be in color, clear, with a full front view of your face.
  • The photograph must be taken with a neutral facial expression (preferred) or a natural smile, and with both eyes open and be printed on photo quality paper with a plain light (white or off-white) background.
  • The photograph must be taken in normal street attire, without a hat, or head covering unless a signed statement is submitted by the applicant verifying that the hat or head covering is part of recognized, traditional religious attire that is customarily or required to be worn continuously when in public or a signed doctor’s statement is submitted verifying the item is used daily for medical purposes.
  • Headphones, “bluetooth”, or similar devices must not be worn in the passport photograph.
  • Glasses or other eyewear are not acceptable unless you provide a signed statement from a doctor explaining why you cannot remove them due to medical reasons (e.g., during the recovery period from eye surgery).
  • Any photograph retouched so that your appearance is changed is unacceptable.
  • A snapshot, most vending machine prints, hand-held self portraits, and magazine or full-length photographs are unacceptable.
  • A digital photo must meet the previously stated qualifications, and will be accepted for use at the discretion of Passport Services.

Can you smile in a passport photo?

Yes. You can smile your passport photo. 🙂

If you read carefully in the terms above you saw that you are permitted to have your photo taken with a “natural smile.”

Filling out the Form DS-82

I went old school with mine and just printed out the form and filled it in with a black ink pen.

If you can’t stand filling out paperwork you should rejoice because there are only two pages to fill out (really 1 1/2 pages).

The first four pages of the From DS-82 document are instructions so you don’t have to send those in (but you should still read them).

On the Form DS-82, you’ll be asked to fill in basic info like:

  • Your name
  • Birthdate
  • Social security number
  • Place of birth
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Old passport information

On the second page, you’ll need to be prepared to answer some descriptive questions like your height, hair color, eye color, occupation, employer, emergency contact, and future travel plans.

Choosing a regular book or large book

The price of a regular book or large book is same. The large book is made for people who will be doing a lot of travel since it comes with extra passport pages — remember you can no longer add pages to your passport book! I recommend going with the large book because you never know when you might need the extra pages for visas, etc. 

Passport book vs passport card

You also need to check whether you want the passport book, passport card, or both.

Unlike the passport book, the passport card is valid only for entry at land border crossings and sea ports of entry when traveling from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. The passport card cannot be used for international air travel.

Stapling your passport photo

You’ll also need to staple your passport photo right onto the form. You should see exactly where they would like for you to place the staples, too. Just to make thing easier for you, I’ve put red rectangles around the area for the photo.

The instructions state to use caution when stapling and to use 4 staples vertically in the corners as close to the outer edge as possible. They also tell you not to bend the photo.

What documents do I need if I changed my name?

If the name you are currently using differs from the name on your most recent U.S. passport, you must submit:

  • A certified copy of your marriage certificate OR
  • A court order showing the change of name

These documents will be returned to you. 

If you can’t get the documents to verify your name change then you cannot renew via mial. Instead, you must apply on the DS-11 application form by making a personal appearance at:

  • (1) a passport agency
  • (2) U.S. embassy or consulate, if abroad
  • (3) any federal or state court of record or any probate court accepting passport applications
  • (4) a designated municipal or county official
  • (5) a post office, which has been selected to accept passport applications.

Where do I mail my passport application documents to?

There are three different mailing addresses you might send your documents to depending on where you live or if you are going to expedite your application.

I suggest sending in your application via Priority mail or UPS so that you can track your package. Remember, you’re sending off your passport, so you need to be able to keep tabs on it.

If you live in CA, FL, IL, MN, NY, or TX:

  • National Passport Processing Center
  • P.O. Box 640155
  • Irving, TX 75064-0155

If you live in any other state or Canada

  • National Passport Processing Center
  • P.O. Box 90155
  • Philadelphia, PA 19190-0155

For expedited service

For expedited service, regardless of where you live, there’s a special mailing address:

  • National Passport Processing Center
  • P.O. Box 90955
  • Philadelphia, PA 19190-0955

Note that there is an additional fee for expediting your passport (more on that below).

Here are the three addresses you need to choose from.

How do I expedite my passport application?

The first thing that you need to do is write “Expedite” on the outer envelope when mailing.

The second thing you need to do is include the expedited fee with your application.

Passport Services also recommends using overnight delivery when submitting the application AND including the paying the additional fee for return overnight delivery for the newly issued passport book.

Expedited service is only available for passports mailed in the United States and Canada.

Expedite Fee

The passport expedite fee is $60 per person.

Overnight Delivery

The overnight delivery fee per application for overnight delivery of an issued passport book  is $15.89. This only applies to mailing addresses within the United States and is not valid for passport cards.

Emergency expediting

If you have a family emergency, such as a death or you are traveling within a couple of weeks. You probably don’t want to mail in your application to expedite it. Instead, you can take other measures such as scheduling an appointment to meet with a passport agency.

What are the fees to renew your passport?

To figure out your passport fees you can use their handy calculator which you can find here or you can just take a look at the fee chart and figure it all out yourself.

The chart shows that the fees to renew your passport (book only) are $110. If you want to expedite then you simply add the costs seen above to these totals.

You need to send in your passport payment with money order or checks made out to the “U.S. Department of State.”

Make sure to print your full name AND date of birth on the front of the check or the money order. And do NOT send cash as a form of payment. 

The passport application fee and the execution fee are non-refundable. They are collected and retained by law even if a passport is not issued.

How long does it take to renew your passport?

If you expedite your passport application you can get it back very quickly, such as in a week or two.

Obviously, factors come into play with the timing of your application being processed. For example, many people trying to renew their passports for summer could certainly slow down the processing time.

How can I check the status of my passport application?

  • You can check the status of your US passport application buy clicking here. 

You’ll need to input details such as your last name, date of birth, and the last four digits of your social security number.


Can I apply at an acceptance facility instead of mailing in my renewal application?

  • No, if you are applying on Form DS-82, acceptance facilities will not take your application

Can I renew my passport if it’s still valid?

  •  Yes. Your passport does not have to be expired for you to renew it. In fact, they recommend renewing your passport well ahead of any planned international travel, even if it still has a months validity left on it. 
Remember there are a number of countries that require a passport be valid at least six months beyond you travel dates
  • You can click here learn more about entry requirements for different countries.

I’m behind in child support. Can I get a passport?

How will my passport book and/or card be mailed back to me?

  •  Newly-issued passport books are delivered using Priority Mail with Delivery Confirmation, unless you pay for Priority Express return service at time of application.
  • All passport cards will be mailed using First Class Mail.

Note that if you pay for expedited shipping, your new passport will be expedited but your old passport will likely arrive much later.

Should I pay a service to renew my passport?

I honestly think it’s a waste of money to pay someone to take care of your passport renewal unless you really struggle with filling out forms.

Remember, all you have to do so is fill out your application and then send the following documents along with your application:

  • Your most recent U.S. passport book and/or card
  • A certified copy of your marriage certificate or court order (but only if your name has changed)
  • A check or money order for your passport Fees
  • A recent 2″x2″ color photograph

And that’s it.

Final word on renewing your passport

Overall, even though you can’t renew your passport online, renewing your passport is actually very easy if you’re allowed to just mail in your documents. If you pay attention to the instructions and information in this article, you shouldn’t have an issue.

Should I Book My Travels with An OTA?

Online Travel Agencies (or “OTAs”) are becoming more and more popular and widespread as new OTAs continue to enter the picture. OTAs are websites like Expedia,, RocketMiles, and that allow you to book your travel via a third party. But it’s not always so clear if these OTAs are better deals for your travels, so here are some things to consider.

Why should I use an OTA?

OTAs are popular because they simplify the searching and booking process by allowing you to easily sort and compare prices for different properties. Since they often buy rooms at wholesale rates, they are also sometimes able to offer better deals than booking directly with the hotel.

You can find my list of the top OTAs here.

Great search features

One of the things I love about OTAs is that you can often search cities by neighborhoods, districts, landmarks, etc., and that makes searching much more efficient. For example, when planning a stay in London I can search for hotels located around iconic locations like the Tower of London or center them around areas like Covent Garden.

Searching near landmarks is an effecient way to find the right hotel for you.

Also, you can utilize features like map views to scan the price ranges in different neighborhoods. Filtering your searches by price or by “stars” is another easy way to get rid of all of those hotel options that aren’t in your price range.

Thus, even if you’re not planning on booking with an OTA, you might still consider using it as a preliminary search tool to find a hotel that’s right for you.

Cheaper prices

You can often find cheaper prices on OTAs, too. It’s true that some hotels will price-match what you find on OTAs, but based on my personal experience, this isn’t very common and hotels often have a minimum floor which they will not go below, regardless of what price is found on an OTA.

As an example, I once found a Marriott hotel in Houston listed on an OTA for around $80 cheaper than the price listed on the hotel’s website but when I called in to get a match, I was told that there was no chance of that happening.

So OTAs can provide you with a host of benefits but you should be aware of certain things when booking airfare and hotels.


There aren’t many drawbacks to booking airfare through an OTA. This is because you’re still able to earn your frequent flyer miles even when you’ve booked through an OTA. You should always check to make sure that the OTA is providing you with all of the flight routing options and that the prices are competitive, since OTAs won’t always show you all of the possible routing options and prices.

Another one of the potential drawbacks is that some cards like the The Platinum Card® from American Express only allow you to earn 5X on purchases made directly with the airlines. This means you might be losing out on some bonus points by purchasing airfare through an OTA , although the purchase should still code as “travel” so for cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you’d still likely be earning bonus rates.

Hotel stays

Booking hotel stays through an OTA presents different concerns than airfare. The biggest issues are that you probably won’t earn any credits for nights or stays and that you might not get your elite status perks honored.

Marriott Renaissance — San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Earning stay credits and hotel points

When booking through an OTA, you’ll almost certainly not earn any credits for stays/nights or even points for that hotel’s loyalty program. I’ve heard of people getting credit/points when booking through an OTA before, but those cases usually involve some type of a glitch.

This is why you always want to compare your savings/rewards that you’re receiving from the OTA to what you would’ve earned if you booked directly with the hotel.

Elite perks

Receiving elite perks can be hit or miss when booking through OTAs. Generally, both Marriott and Hyatt are great about honoring your elite status even when you make a booking through an OTA.

On Marriott stays, I’ve been able to still receive Marriott Platinum Elite benefits like free breakfasts, free internet, lounge access, upgrades to suites, and late check out.

The trick is to call in to the front desk before you arrive and request them to insert your loyalty number into your reservation. While Marriott and Hyatt are good about honoring their elite perks, you might still have some luck with other hotels chains on a case-by-case basis.

Upgraded to a Marriott suite when booking through an OTA.

Limited inventory

OTAs have a limited inventory of hotels and rooms. For that reason, you may not ever see a hotel you’re looking for on an OTA. And it’s also possible that the hotel you’re looking at is only showing you a fraction of the room choices available to you. Typically, finding standard rooms isn’t terribly difficult, but if you’re looking for specific rooms like ocean-view rooms or corner rooms, they don’t always show up in the searches.

Pre-paid bookings and cancellations

When booking anything through an OTA, it’s very important to know what exactly your cancellation policy is. Many OTAs now offer you different options, such as pre-paid bookings or pay when you arrive bookings. Take extra care to read what the cancellation policy is, since sometimes OTAs give you somewhat arbitrary cut-offs for cancellations.

If something happens and you need to cancel your booking, the decision to offer you a refund is usually made by the property. Sometimes the OTA will act as a liaison to assist you with obtaining the refund, but often you are on your own.


Not many OTAs offer great rewards when compared to what you earn when you book directly with hotels. What’s more, it takes a lot of booked nights to earn enough points to have a worthwhile redemption opportunity when booking through Expedia.

However, some OTAs, like, offer fantastic rewards. I was even able to earn over a 40% return on a Hyatt booking before, which is phenomenal. With sites like BonWi, it’s possible to earn enough points for worthwhile redemptions with only a couple of stays.

Even if the rewards are not that lucrative, some rewards are still better than none. At some point you’ll probably visit destinations that don’t have many (or any) properties belonging to your hotel loyalty program of choice. When booking these properties, it often makes sense to go with an OTA since you can earn rewards on top of your savings.

Booking for friend and family

Also, OTAs are great because you should be able to make bookings for your friends and families. This means that even if you’re not going to be involved in the actual traveling at all you can still book the travels through an OTA and earn rewards for that OTA’s program.

Other options

When choosing to book through OTAs you always have to weigh your other options. For example it’s possible to earn alternative savings with:

  • Discounted hotel gift cards (sometimes even purchased with 5X)
  • Seasonal hotel promotions (e.g., double the base points)
  • Online cash back portals
  • Amex Offers

Many times you can stack some of these options together and create savings that outweigh the savings/rewards you’d receive from the OTA. So again, it’s important to do some basic math before booking with an OTA so you don’t limit your savings.

Final word

Overall, there’s nothing wrong with booking with OTAs. In some circumstances you’d probably want to avoid them to earn stay credit and points with your favorite loyalty program but sometimes the savings will be so high with an OTA that you’re better off forgoing what you would earn with that hotel’s loyalty program.

Guide to Getting a Tourist Visa for Brazil at The Houston Consulate

Getting a tourist visa for Brazil from the Houston Consulate was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done in my life. We probably got a little bit lucky, but we were able to get our tourists visas for Brazil in less than 24 hours without doing any kind of expedited effort. Here’s a review of how we got our visas and some tips to help you along the way.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal and/or immigration advice of any kind. If you have any questions please contact a professional immigration attorney or other other professional. Also, if you are applying for a tourist visa in another city many of these steps may not be applicable to you as different jurisdictions have different requirements. 

Filling out the application

First, if you are looking for information on getting a visa from Brazil then check this out.  That link will tell you almost everything you need to know and is a great starting point for wrapping your head around the requirements you’ll need to fulfill.

The application must be filled out online at this link.  For English click on the Union Jack (UK flag) and then select “VISA SELECT.”

From that point, you’re in the application and just need to fill everything out. Remember, leave a space blank if it doesn’t apply (e.g., “previous name”). There’s not a whole lot to fill out for the application and the hardest part will probably be the contact information in Brazil. For most tourists, you’ll just put your hotel but you’ll need to go dig-up the address, phone number, and email. (The state is RJ if you’re staying in Rio De Janeiro, in case you couldn’t guess that.)

After you fill out your application hit submit and it should give you your application ID. If you don’t get that application ID you may have to just re-apply (that’s what Brad had to do).

Uploading documents

After you hit submit, you’ll be prompted to upload documents. (If you hit cancel, you can always upload the documents later or just not upload any documents and bring them into your appointment.)

Screenshot found on the Consulate website

The documents you’ll probably be uploading are itinerary, signature, passport, and photo. There are some special requirements for uploading the documents so pay close attention to those requirement. To upload a photo I would have had to cut my passport photo and since I only had one photo on me I decided not to upload any documents. Remember, even if you upload your documents you still must bring all of them in with you to the appointment.

Note: The website states that  it will “agilize” your application by uploading the documents. I didn’t know what that meant, but it’s apparently Portuguese for “streamline.” Still, I got my visa within 45 minutes of my scheduled appointment so I doubt it could have been streamlined that much, anyway.

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 8.34.54 AM

Anyway, if you just hit cancel then your next step is to print out your visa form delivery receipt. This is one of the documents that you have to bring with you to your appointment, so don’t forget about it!

Delivery Receipt Form

Schedule an appointment

Your next step is to schedule an appointment. This is easy to do and just requires you to follow basic directions and go to the appointment booking website. We found morning availability for the next day when we searched and there were plenty of open slots for the coming week so you should have a pretty easy time booking an appointment if you’re even just a little bit flexible.

You can schedule up to two appointments for one slot and the other applicant doesn’t need to be there (just bring a copy of their ID). You can schedule appointments for more than one additional person but those additional appointments will have to be booked separately and in groups of two. If you need to book appointments for seven or more people then you have to meet special group application requirements.

The appointment

Consulate General of Brazil in Houston Building

The building for the consulate is located directly off of 610 if you’re going north on the westside of Houston. It’s pretty hard to miss and you can actually pull into their little driveway and go right into the visiting center parking (it’s free, thankfully).

Parking garage at the consulate building.

Once you park, go inside and sign in with the front desk. You then need to go up to the 11th floor and you’ll head directly to your right where the visa signs to go. There’s like fifteen chairs and you just take a seat. You don’t sign in up there and the workers will just call your name when they are ready.

Tip: They only called names one time and didn’t shout the names too loudly when I was there and a few people seemed to miss their name being called. Thus, I’d sit as close to the front as possible.

For a tourist visa you will likely need at least the following documents.

  • Passport
  • Print out of delivery receipt form
  • Print out Itinerary (plane tickets)
  • Copy of ID for additional applicants
  • USPS (United States Postal Service) Money Order (Make sure this is a money order from the USPS, as this is one requirement they seemed very strict about!)

They called my name about 20 minutes after my scheduled appointment. This appointment lasted just a few seconds and the only issue for me was that I didn’t have a print out of my itinerary or a copy of Brad’s ID. Luckily, she accepted the itinerary that showed up on my Aadvantage App on my iPhone and let me get by with a photo Brad sent of his ID from his phone. It was kind of funny how easy it was satisfy the requirements but I was very thankful that it didn’t become too difficult.

There’s a cafe on floor 7 of the building and the workers encourage you to go down there for about 30 minutes while you wait for your visa to be processed. I didn’t check out the cafe so I’m not sure what all was down there but a lot of people seemed to be interested in it.

Anyway, about 45 minutes after my appointment, they called me to the front to verify the details on the visas and just like that I had two tourist visas for Brazil in under 24 hours! It’s awesome how quickly you can get them and I even met a guy on the elevator who was leaving for Brazil the next day and just getting his visa!

I’ve applied for a few visas but so far the tourist visa for Brazil has been of the easiest for me to apply for. Just follow the directions online and you should have no problems getting approved for your visa, potentially in as quickly as 24 hours as we did!