Monday, July 28, 2008

What I’ve Learned From Booking 12 Different Round-Trip Flights in the Last Two Weeks

Author: Nick
Category: Money

comic 46 - last minute flight

Let me just get something out of the way first: I am not a big air traveler. In fact, I hate airplanes. It’s not that I’m afraid to fly, because I’m not. You’d have to be an idiot to be afraid to fly while not being absolutely mortified to set foot in an automobile. I just don’t like the idea of airplanes and how they are, essentially, controlled, self-contained people catapults.

For the people who know just how much I dislike air travel, it would freak them out to know that I’ve booked nearly a dozen round-trip plane tickets in the last couple of weeks. This comes after only having booked plane tickets one other time in my entire life (last summer, for a business trip to Colorado). Lest you think I’ve somehow gone plain crazy (plane crazy?), most of those tickets were not purchased for myself. Most of them, in fact, were booked on other people’s behalf. Here’s the breakdown of just who got those tickets:

  • Four out-of-town co-workers. At a recent business conference, several of my co-workers located in other states asked me to help them get interviews at our locations in the Washington, DC area. And since I helped them get those interviews, I also volunteered to help them order their plane tickets (paid for by the company, of course) so as to avoid busy travel times and other retarded features of flying into and out of our nation’s capital. All four got round-trip tickets there and back; two are coming back in the next week or so for another interview while two others have or soon will be taking a one-way trip to the area to start their new jobs. (Oops, I fibbed about all 10 of those tickets being round-trip.)
  • One out-of-town co-worker and close friend. I became good friends with one particular co-worker who managed to turn a separate three-day finance conference in the DC area into a fun-filled week-long orientation to her soon-to-be new city of residence. But because her plans changed several times, we ended up going through three different round-trip itineraries (and the associated change fees) just to accommodate her conference and her interviews.
  • One round trip for myself. Lucky me, I just found out last night that I get the wonderful pleasure of doing some traveling myself next weekend. Yay.

So in about half a month I’ve gone from not knowing the difference between an e-ticket and standby to knowing all 37 different ways you can get from Denver to Dulles on a Thursday afternoon. But that’s just one of a few lessons I’ve picked up from my ticket-purchasing spree of late. Here are some of the other things I, an air travel novice, have learned about going from point A to point B via giant winged metal monstrosity.

  1. Flying is actually not that expensive. It only runs about $250 round-trip to come up here from Orlando and go back… if you don’t mind flying on a discount airline. Considering you’re going about 1700 miles in less than five hours, that only comes to about 15 cents a mile—about what you’d pay for gas alone if you drove instead.
  2. Flying is expensive. Considering that traveling economy class on a discount airline is about half a step up from packing yourself in a cardboard box and shipping yourself to your destination, it sure does cost a pretty penny.
  3. Changing a flight is expensive, a pain in the ass, and expensive. In one case, the itinerary change fee was almost as much as the one-way trip itself. By 2020, I imagine the average round-trip flight fare will still only be $250, but you’ll pay $3,000 in “because you breathe oxygen” fees.
  4. Frequent flyer miles fail if you don’t freaking fly frequently. After saying that three times fast, I’ll just note that frequent flyer plans aren’t like credit card rewards where even schmucks who just buy a few items here and there can still get something for their trouble. Even after booking a dozen flights with my own frequent flyer numbers, I still don’t have enough miles on a single airline to get me off the ground! Oh, and why do they say you have “15,000 miles” if they’re really only good for a flight that’s 500 miles? I guess inflation has hit the airline industry harder than everyone else.
  5. There’s never a plane flying when you really want one to be flying. So you want a flight that departs Denver for Washington sometime between 2pm and 6pm? Okay, we have flights leaving at 9am and 8pm with available seats. Or you could connect through Chicago and Atlanta, but we can’t promise that your baggage won’t end up in, say, Dublin.
  6. Cheap airlines are cheap for a reason. As if no food service was bad enough, some discount airliners thought that a great way to save money would be to introduce negative leg room. Yes, worse than 10 inches of leg room. The next guy’s seat actually starts before yours finishes. Hopefully you have detachable feet you can store in the overhead compartment.
  7. Sites like Expedia and Travelocity are great. You use them to find the flight you want across 50,000 different airlines; then you go to that airline’s website and book it directly with them instead of paying Expedia or Travelocity’s stupid fees.
  8. Two of the three DC-area airports are not public transportation friendly. In a way, planes are a form of public transportation. Okay, in many ways because they freaking are. So why DC doesn’t do a better job of getting folks from all points in DC to Dulles or BWI Airports on public ground transportation without having to transfer at least twice on Metro and then take an hour-long bus ride is beyond me. Sure, there are plans to build Metro lines out to Dulles one day, and DC residents typically don’t give a crap about BWI anyway, but whoever planned the placement of these airports relative to the rest of the area really didn’t take into account that, hey, everyone lives 30 freaking miles that way.
  9. Airport food is expensive. Three bucks for a bottle of water? Fifteen dollars for a crappy sandwich at the airport restaurant? I fully expect that we will soon see airlines purposely delaying arrivals so that passengers disembark so famished and thirsty that they’ll gladly pay the $42 for a piece of baloney and a packet of mustard.

There’s one thing I learned from all of this recent air travel planning that deserves to be kept separate from the rest of the list: Arrival gates are one of the happiest places on earth. Seriously, anytime you’re feeling down in the future, just take a trip to the nearest airport’s arrival gate for a couple of hours. You’ll witness a steady stream of tearful reunions that’ll really cheer you up and renew your faith in humanity.

Your faith in the airline industry, on the other hand, is now departing from Gate 15A on a one-way trip to Never-Never Land.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

All The Free Magazines You Could Ever Want Without Having to Rob a Liquor Store

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

If it seems like I’m not popping up in your daily reading list as often this week, I do apologize. You see, I’ve simultaneously caught every virus and bacteria known to man which is making it slightly difficult to hold a pen for drawing comics, type on a keyboard to write articles, and resist the urge to rip out my own lungs and beat them with a shovel. Happy times!

So in the meantime, join me in enjoying a website which has entertained me for the last 24 hours or so with tons of free electronic versions of your favorite print magazines. The website is called Mygazines, a clever play on the words “magazine” and “gay,” I think. At this website, you’ll find lots of current magazine issues including popular ones like Money, Smart Money, Even Smarter Money, and Naughty Neighbors. Yes, that’s right, financial and pornographic magazines, all in one place, all for free. No need to thank me.

Tune in for more Punny Money programming just as soon as these 73 prescription drugs start kicking in…

Monday, July 21, 2008

Is Working Overtime Killing You Too?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 45 - ninja attack

Japan—that island super-nation that gave us such innovations as karaoke, Super Nintendo, and Ice Cucumber Pepsi—has a bit of a problem. You see, the people in Japan just work too damned hard. Whereas the typical American 40-hour work week consists of 20 hours of coffee breaks, 10 hours of unproductive meetings, 7 hours of sexually harassing your gorgeous secretary, and 3 hours of actual work, the Japanese work week averages 60-70 grueling hours. What happened was, a while back, Japan realized that the only way it was going to overtake the United States (a country with more than twice its population) in areas like technology, education, and pornography was to work roughly 17 times harder. And that’s just what they did then and continue to do to this very day.

Sadly for Japanese workers, working yourself to death has the unfortunate side effect of sometimes actually killing you as one unlucky engineer at Toyota found out recently. The occurrence of overtiming oneself into an early grave has become such a frequent happening in Japan in the last half-century that they’ve even invented a word to describe the phenomenon: karōshi which, roughly translated, means “happy fun hard-working death time.” There have been dozens of well-publicized karōshi deaths in Japan since the phrase was first coined around 1970, though many other cases likely go unreported as companies pay surviving family members quiet settlements. The typical karōshi death is a direct result of a heart attack or stroke caused by sheer overwork.

While 80-hour work weeks aren’t as common on this side of the Pacific, there are nonetheless plenty of Americans who are prime candidates for exiting this life karōshi style. You might know a few people like this yourself. Heck, you might even be someone like this—toiling thanklessly for the good of your employer with little regard for your own self-preservation. If that sounds like you, then there are some steps you might want to start taking right away to help ensure you don’t drop dead from overwork.

  1. Um, stop working so much, eh? If you don’t realize this is the best option, then you’re probably too far down the karōshi path to turn back now. Don’t worry, I’m sure your boss will take good care of your spouse after you’re gone, if you know what I mean.
  2. Get paid more. Believe it or not, knowing that you’re fairly compensated for your job can make it less stressful. If you’ve got plenty of money coming into the household, you won’t have as much to worry about outside of work, which means you’ll be able to pull off a few 80-hour work weeks here and there without dissolving yourself into a puddle of overworked goo.
  3. Get paid overtime. If you already get paid well for your first 40 hours, but you’re working 70 hours a week, then you’re giving away 30 hours of your time for free. Ask your company for overtime pay or work somewhere else that already offers it. You’ll still be working as hard, but you’ll know in the back of your mind that there’s a small reward for your efforts.
  4. Use your vacation time. Another good sign that you’re on the karōshi death spiral is if you have a habit of never using vacation and/or letting vacation time expire without using it. There are very few workplaces that give “too much” vacation time, so you should be using most or all of whatever you’re given.
  5. Change careers. Maybe your current job is too conducive to overwork. You might want to start looking for a job somewhere more relaxed. And if your line of work is such that you’ll be overworked no matter who your employer is, then it may be time to completely change careers to sometime a little less suicidal.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go show those Japanese that us American engineers won’t take their 80-hour work weeks lying down! Oh no no no, I’ll be sitting upright in my comfy chair, sipping my coffee… maybe take a long lunch, leave a bit early… take the rest of the week off…

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Five Easy Steps to Gauging Cost of Living Differences Between Big Cities

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 44 - cost of living

There may come a time in your life when you just have to pack yourself up and move to a new place. Sometimes that new place is just down the road from the old one. Other times, you may be looking to relocate to a new city, a new state, or even a new country. Some of you may even desire to relocate to a new planet; I get that feeling at least three times a day.

Moving long distance certainly carries along with it a variety of challenges—finding somewhere new to live (possibly without even looking at the new area first), navigating your way around an entirely different area, making new friends, and much more. But perhaps one of the difficulties many people do not give enough consideration to is cost of living differences between your current city of residence and your new one. For example, you might think you’re getting a 10% raise by taking that new job in New York City, but if you’re coming from Middle of Nowhere, Iowa, you’ll quickly realize that the NYC cost of living is far more than 10% above that of the mid-west. In general, moving from a small town to a big city means you’re going to pay more for just about everything.

But what if you’re moving from one big city to another? All cities are not created equal, and a commodity that is considered cheap in one city may cost a lot more in another. Say you’re a big fan of Florida oranges. If you live in Miami, those things are going to be a lot cheaper there than if you live in San Fransisco. And what about rent and housing costs? These are typically the biggest expense anyone carries, and while sheltering yourself in any big city is going to cost you a good amount, it might cost you a lot more in certain big cities based on factors like how much that city is still growing.

Fortunately computing the cost of living difference between Big City A and Big City B doesn’t require you to compare prices on every item you’ll ever need to buy. In fact, while recently helping a friend compute the cost of living difference between Orlando and Washington D.C., I’ve found that you only need to look at how much five particular things cost in order to get a pretty good approximation of how much more (or less) money it’ll cost you to live in your new city versus the old one:

  1. Apartment rental rates. As we discussed earlier, you’ll be throwing a lot of money at the roof over your head no matter which big city you live in, so knowing how much your monthly rent will run compared to what you’re paying now will tell you right away if that new city is even within your income’s grasp. And if you’re planning to stick around your new city for very long, you may want to check out housing price differences as well.
  2. A loaf of bread at the store. If there’s a single tell-tale grocery item that’ll help you compare cost of living differences, it’s that loaf of rye or wheat or whatever. Even if you’re not a bread eater, the cost of bread seems to be very closely tied to the average cost of other food items and will serve as a good indicator of what your grocery bill will be like in your new city.
  3. The cost of traveling from one end of the city to another. Especially with rising fuel prices, it’s important to know how much it’ll run you to get around in your new town. But just comparing prices at the pump isn’t enough. You’ll also want to take into account any available public transportation options, how bad traffic is, and parking prices. Gas might average 15% higher in your new city, but it might have a more extensive bus or rail system to help you get around for cheaper than driving yourself.
  4. A glass of wine at a restaurant. There are lots of different ways to gauge how much more or less it will cost to have fun in your new city. Even if you’re not a drinker though, a glass of wine at a decent restaurant will serve as a good indicator of how much other entertainment avenues will run you. You could also look at the cost of movie tickets, cover charges at clubs, or a hot dog at a major league baseball game.
  5. A haircut. This is just a good general measure of the cost of living difference between cities. Compare whatever your usual cut or do costs in City A to what it runs in City B and you’ll get a fair idea of how much of a price difference there is in things like clothing, toiletries, and household goods.

One other important thing to keep in mind when comparing cost of living differences. Thanks to the power of internet shopping, you can order a purple lamp shade in a South Dakotan town with a population of 200 at the same price that it would cost to buy it for your $3,000 a month one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. Geography is becoming less and less relevant to cost of living measures for many items, so just because you see a pair of shoes in downtown Seattle for three times the price as your shoe store back home in Cabin in the Woods, Montana doesn’t mean everything costs three times more in the bigger city. So be sure to do your pricing homework before committing to any big move.

Oh, and for those who’d like to join me in my extra-terrestrial residential aspirations, I hear that there are some nice three-bedroom condos for under 200,000 Intergalactic Credits just outside Alpha Centauri.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Find Out How Your Salary Compares With Excessive Drinking!

Author: Nick
Category: Money

comic 43 - celery requirements

If there is one true driving force behind the world today, it is to make more money than everyone else you know, or at least more than everyone you work with at the same level. After all, what better way is there of measuring self-worth than by the size of your paycheck?

Unfortunately, finding out how much those around you make is easier said than done. Because everyone else is also vying to make more money than you, they won’t readily reveal their annual salaries just because you ask. If it were this simple to find out where you stand on the salary ladder, everybody would know how much everyone makes, and workplace riots would ensue.

But if you absolutely can’t live another minute without knowing how much your fellow financial analysts, data entry specialists, or waste management engineers make, then there is one way that you can pry those figures out of them—a good old-fashioned alcohol interrogation.

I’ve written before about the benefits that drinking can have for your career, but it’s also quite useful for getting sensitive information out of your co-workers as I discovered at a recent week-long work conference. All it took was a group of us, some cheap beer, and a late night in one of my co-worker’s hotel rooms for me to find out that I make a surprisingly large amount more than all of them—even the smart, savvy ones I thought absolutely had to be making more than me. It’s a good thing I was the last one to reveal his salary because I had to make up a number smaller than my actual salary or else there might have been some workplace violence right then and there.

If you’d like to try to reproduce this exercise on your own, here’s a quick instructional guide to help you:

  1. Get a group together you’d like to “interrogate.” Obviously you’re not going to tell them you’re getting everyone together to find out their salaries. Just arrange for a get-together outside of work—at a bar, a bowling alley, your own home, or wherever. Just be sure it’s a friendly, relaxing atmosphere. Also, keep the number attending to a minimum; this will help you take control of the groupthink easier.
  2. Add alcohol. Buy the first round if you’re away from home, or stock a decent bar if you’re hosting at your place. If anyone isn’t drinking, you probably shouldn’t have invited them in the first place, but you’ll need to shed them before you can start the salary discussion. A change of venue at the midpoint of the evening might do the trick.
  3. Stir. Once everyone’s had a few drinks, it’s time to get the conversation heading in the right direction. It should be easy enough to get people talking about work; after all, it’s the one thing you all have in common. Add a little bitching about how underpaid all of you are, and it won’t be long before someone suggests sharing salary figures.
  4. Lie about your salary. Optionally, you may wish not to give out your actual salary figure. Yes, this is the exact opposite of what you’re asking everyone else to do, but if everyone else’s figures are coming in substantially higher or lower than yours, you might want to pitch out a number that’s in the middle of the pack to avoid embarrassment or animosity.

Once you have those salary figures, you’ll want to consider where you fall into the range of your fellow workers. And if you’re making a lot less than everyone else, it might be time to execute another plan I’ll write about later: getting a raise or a promotion through excessive drinking.