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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Working around debit-card "blocking" at the fuel pump

As more RVers hit the road, turning the summer into "tour time," there can be an unexpected bit of financial reckoning. Even as gas prices are dropping, there's still a possible snake-in-the-grass waiting for you at the fuel pump: Debit card holds.

It works this way: You pull up to the pump, insert your bank debit card to pay for your purchase. Let's say you're conservative like the "better half" in our family – you don't like to run the tank too low, so you fill up long before you hit the quarter mark on the fuel tank gauge. So into the tank goes, say, $30. And down the highway you go. For another few hours, when you see that point where you need to refuel. Repeat as above, debit card used, small purchase made, off down the highway.

Maybe you filled three times today, at $30 on your debit card per transaction, and that's – let's see -- $90, right? Right, yes, but could be "wrong," too. Each time you use your debit card at a fuel pump, the fuel station owner can place a "hold" on your bank account, not just for exactly how much you bought, but for even more. A typical "hold" could be as much as $75. So $75 times three fill ups equals a hold against your bank account to the tune of $225, even though your total fuel purchases were only $90. That's $135 of your precious money that you can't touch until the hold is released.

"Why," you ask, "does this happen?" It's simple. When you use a debit card at the pump, the station is basically pre-authorizing you to buy fuel. The fuel company reasons that it has no idea how much fuel you'll really be pumping, nor do they know how much money you have in the bank. So they take an educated guess as to the transaction and slap a hold on your account. Later, when everything shakes out, either at the end of the day, or the next day, they pass the actual amount charged along to your bank, who when they decide to take the old of the account, do so.

The problem is, if you're not aware of how many dollars are "held" can lead to a real problem. Let's say that for two days you're plowing down the road, racking up $225 worth of holds per day, that's $450 worth of holds on only $180 worth of real purchases. Meantime, that check you wrote for $200 is presented to the bank for payment. You thought you bought $180 worth of fuel, the check is for $200, and you have $500 in the bank, so plenty of room for the check to clear, right? Wrong! The bank says, "Oh yeah, there's $500 in the account, but here are holds for $450 worth of holds, so we can't accept this check." The check bounces, the bank that presents the check gets after you for the bounced check, and your bank does the same.

Who's at fault here? A lot of finger pointing goes on. The gas company says, "The bank says when the hold is released, so blame them!" The bank fires back, "We only release the hold, it's the gas company that tells us how much we should hold." Of course, you're the guy in the middle. To add insult to injury, it's not just gas stations that play the debit card funds hold game. Some RV parks will tie up your account – one, by its own admission – will tie up $50 for up a full month!

What's to be done? Unless you have plenty of fluid cash in the bank to handle debit card holds, you'll need to do a work-around. First, skip using a debit card to pay for fuel purchases. Pay cash or use a credit card. Or, some crafty debit card users who don't mind a little extra footwork will go inside the station and present your debit card before the transaction. Afterwards, you go back inside and complete the transaction by entering your card's PIN code. In most cases, the transaction will then be immediately processed through the banking system clearing house, and no "holds" will be put on your account.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Ten national parks with budget gate fees and camping costs

A recent survey of RVers showed that nearly 60 percent had either directly planned to visit a national park this summer, or probably would. Even with lower fuel prices though, money still talks. How can you visit a park on a limited budget? Along comes a list of 10 US national parks that have great camping fees and low (or non-existent) gate fees. Here's a summary of the findings of a piece published in the Christian Science Monitor.

1. Acadia National Park (Maine). Ocean views, tallest point on the East Coast, forests, beaches. Gate access, $25 for a week. Campground fees as low as $22 to $30 per night Here's a link to the park website.

2. Yosemite National Park (California). Some of the most majestic views in the Golden State. Gate fees will set you back $30 for a week. Site fees range from $12 to $26. Visit the park via the Internet here. 

3. Olympic National Park (Washington). From shining sea to shaded rain forests, and snow capped glaciers. Gate in for a week for just $20; stay in one of the many campgrounds from $15 to $22. Here's a link. 

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee). Must be something here that brings everybody – America's most visited national park gates you in for a whopping value of $0 (yes, ZERO). Camping fees range from $14 to $23. Here's where to go for more info.

5. Glacier National Park (Montana). Cold in the winter, lovely in the summer, and over 1,000 campsites, and an easy "stepover" into Canada, eh? In the gate for $25, and site fees range $10 to $23. Check out the park's website.

6. Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming). Lots of drive views, or float the river. In the gate for $30 a week; then camp for $22 – a bit more in some with utility hookups. Here's a link to get you to Wyoming in an instant.

7. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona). While the south part of the state may be hotter than blazes at this time of year, a visit to the biggest ditch in North America will cool you off in a hurry. While tons of folks visit the South Rim, you'll find the North Rim has stunning beauty, and far fewer crowds. A $30 bill gets you in the gate, while camping runs between $18 and $25 a night – it goes FAST! Camp outside the South Rim in the National Forest for free. Link here to the park website. 

8. Big Bend National Park (Texas). Yes, it can be hot, but just look at those mountains! Rivers, trails, lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Well, probably NOT all three, but you can look. Cost you $25 to get in to verify my story, and $14 per night to camp. Point your browser here for the details.

9. Badlands National Park (South Dakota). "Such purdy views, Maude" along the scenic byway, and hikers with endurance try out the Notch Trail. Just $15 to skate in the gate with your rig; campground prices range from FREE (primitive site) to up to $30 per night with utility hookups. Badlands browser go here. 

10. Shenandoah National Park (Virginia). Oh, we long to see you. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, quiet wooded hollows—take a hike, a meander along Skyline Drive, or a picnic with the family. 200,000 acres of protected lands are haven to deer, songbirds, the night sky…and you. Bring that family and get in the door for just $20 for the week; overnight at $15 to $17. Click here to see it all.

Check out the CSM story in its entirety.