Think Twice Before Getting an STA Travel Cashcard

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Want to know how to loose 10% of your travel spends very fast? Get an STA Travel Cashcard.

I was sold the card by the agent in the STA highstreet store, to be honest I was a little stupid and didnt do a whole lot of research into it assuming it will be good value for money, oh how wrong can you be.

I am half way through my 8 month journey now and have just decided to check my finances to see how im doing and how much its costing me every time I withdraw money here.

The above image is a quick spreadsheet I have put together from my online bank statement for the Cashcard and data gleamed from xe.com. As you can see im getting well under the official exchange rate when withdrawing money using this card.

Okay I thought, well perhaps thats just how much it costs to withdraw money here. So as an experiment I withdrew 700,000 COP from exactly the same cash point using my VISA debit card on the 6th of September, the result was it cost me £230.76 with fees of £10.34 making a total of £241.1 which is still far shy of the £259 that I was being charged by the STA Travel Card around the same date.

Obviously I was pretty angry when I saw this so I emailed STA which forwarded me onto Tuxedo LTD which is apparently the company that manages the card. After 5 emails of me insisting I get a proper answer to my query I get the following:

Dear Mr. Cann,

Thank you for your enquiry regarding a deeper explanation into our exchange rates.

Having provided you with the way in which our exchange rate is calculated we have been doing some research regarding what we have referred to as ‘market mid-rate’.

These are the findings from looking at our competitors exchange rates online based on 700,000 COP

(These are taken from the 26th of September 2013):

Post office cost in GBP: £257.32 exchange rate: 2720.36

Thomas cook cost in GBP: £266.06 exchange rate: 2631

STA cashcard cost in GBP: £252.79 exchange rate: 2769.07

Having investigated our competitors’ rates it is clear that we are working closely to the other companies on the market and are cheaper than the Post Office and Thomas Cook.

We appreciate that the VISA debit card you hold is charging you at a lower rate. With the debit card belonging to a bank rather than a travel company this may affect the way in which they calculate and maintain their exchange rates.

If you would like to return the funds from your STA cash card to your debit card please advise of the bank details you wish the funds to be deposited in and this can be arranged for you.

We hope this resolves your query regarding the way in which our exchange rate is calculated and set.

I have put in bold the key lesson here they they themselves are admitting, the STA Travel Cashcard (or other travel cards) cannot compete with a regular bank card, i.e. they are a total sham and should be avoided at all costs.

My recommendation for those people thinking about getting one is DONT. If you are worried about having too much funds in the account (like I was) then just open another account and ask for it to have no overdraft ability then just put however much money you need in there at a time. Make sure you check the rates that the account offers BEFORE you leave!

Windows Taskbar Monitor v0.4

Windows Taskbar Monitor v0.4

Over the years I have had a great many projects, most of which have been chronicled on this blog. The majority of them I leave alone once I have finished with them and never return to.

Windows Taskbar Monitor however is one of the rare tools that I actually still use one a daily basis. So when it stopped working the other day due to a patch in Windows 8 I decided to spare an hour to patch it up.

While I was there I decided to removed the “MEM”, “CPU” and “NET” prefixes from the title bars as they weren’t needed really and just took up more bar space.

I have pushed the source as usual to GitHub, you can grab the release here: https://github.com/mikecann/Windows7-Taskbar-Monitor/releases/tag/0.4

The Trip 2013 – Tyrona to Bucaramanga

Note: This is a condensed version of the pictures I took with some added narrative. The rest of the pics can be viewed in the album The Trip 2013 – Tyrona to Bucaramanga. Each picture can be clicked to see a larger version and comment / like.

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Continuing on my adventures on the northern coast of Colombia I left Taganga and made my way across to the incredibly picturesque Tyrona National Park.

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I spent one night there with a pair of excellent Irish girls, Lizzy and Leesha

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We slept in hammocks down near the beach. I had never slept in a hammock before and so it was a novel experience. It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting but I don’t think I could do a long stay in one.

The site we stayed at was called Arrecifes and was rather quiet though it did have a number of animals wandering around.

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The main reason for us being there was check out the incredible beaches. Unfortunately we couldn’t swim in the sea near our hammocks due to very strong currents in the water..

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.. so we were forced to walk 20-40 minutes to the other beaches. The main beach El Cabo was rather special:

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I was only in Tyrona for a day as I had to return to start my two day Free Diving course.

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I had only recently learnt about the sport of free diving from my two roommates in Taganga, Lisa and Alex. They were avid free divers and their passion inspired me to give it a go.

The sport is split up into various disciplines, some as the name implies involve diving down deep on a single breath others such as ‘Static Abnea’ involve training yourself to hold your breath for as long as you can in a confined water space like a swimming pool.

My instructor was a guy called Carlos who holds a national record in one of the deep diving disciplines. He was a really cool guy and excellent instructor. With his tutorage I was able to up my breath hold personal best of 1 minute 30 up to 3 minutes and 13 seconds which really astounded me.

In the afternoon we hopped into a boat and headed out into the bay of Taganga for some deep diving. My goal was to reach the maximum depth possible for free diving beginners of 20 meters which is deeper than I was diving when I was SCUBA diving. It took several attempts of progressively working my way up (down?) to that depth but eventually I made it!

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Unfortunately soon after that I started having ear and sinus problems forcing me to quit for the day but still I had a great time and great introduction to the fascinating sport.

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After so many weeks at the coast in the baking heat I was ready for a change so I decided to head up to the slightly higher elevations of Minca one hour outside of Santa Marta on the coast. I stayed at the rather excellent Casa Loma:

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The hostel was perched on the side of the hill several hundred meters above the town itself. To get to it you had to climb up far too many steps. With your big heavy pack on your back and small but not light day pack on your font it was a real slog getting up there but it was all worth it when I saw the views.

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The first night there I met a couple of excellent french girls called Angele and Julia, we agreed to meet up the following day and head down and check out ‘Las Cascades’ a series of waterfalls deep in the jungle.

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The walk there was interesting but on the way back it started to rain rather hard. We sook refuge in a restaurant for lunch, unfortunately it seemed like the rain was a little harder than anyone had expected as we were forced to move due to the restaurant flooding.

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Evenings were spent gorging on the excellent food produced by the hostel’s chef Carlos, playing games and drinking copious quantities of Aguila

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Minca for me was an unexpected high point on my trip, and I was sad when I had to leave after just two days.

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But sadly all good things come to an end. I made my way down from Minca then caught a bus back to the coastal town of Cartagena. I loved Cartagena when I was there two weeks previous so was excited to be going back. This time I was travelling with a pair of awesome Germans, Ann Kathrin and Katharina.

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I introduced them to my other German friend Anna (another Ann Kathrin whom I had originally met in Panama and then met up again with last time I was in Cartagena) and Josh (who I had first met in Medellin). We met up in the German / Colombian cultural exchange school then went for some beers in the square.

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I was due to catch a bus to Bucaramanga after two days but due to protests in Colombia which halted the long distance buses I was forced (a real hardship) to stay another night. Annka and Katrina were kind enough to let me stay with them at the beautiful Media luna, thanks guys!

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After spending a few hours burning in the sun at the hostel I made my way to the bus station and caught a 12 hour bus journey to Bucaramanga.

Every time I take a taxi in Colombia I say a quiet word of prayer that I will make it to the destination in one piece. Its not just the drivers’ crazy disregard for general traffic rules and a penchance for driving close to the speed of sound its the other people on the road that worry me.

On this journey alone I saw a boy crossing a busy duel carriageway while playing keepy-uppy with a football, a guy on the back of a motorbike almost loose an arm to a passing bus as he wildly gesticulated / danced and a car completely packed to the roof with bowling balls.

Anyways, I made it to Bucaramanga in one piece I assume by pure luck ready to start my two week Paragliding course.

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Before I left England I knew that one of the things I wanted to do on this trip was to learn to fly, either Hanglide or Paraglide. So when I saw a poster in the hostel in Taganga “Learn to Fly in Bucaramanga” I immediately signed myself up. And im incredibly glad that I did.

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It was hard work and a steep learning curve but totally worth it. When I had my first 30 minute flight after 6-7 days I was on cloud-9. Using your knowledge and skills to keep yourself in the air is such an exhilarating feeling. Never mind the stunning views that the fly site “Las Aguilas” offers over the city.

Over the course of the 14 days I only had one accident. I was attempting to take off in very low to no winds, never a good idea at the best of times. I ran ran ran, hit the edge of the cliff and went over the edge, my legs were in the air but I still wasnt gaining much height when suddenly I hit the ground again with my feet, I slide for a little while until im brought to a rather abrupt stop thanks to my side cracking into a tree stump and the wing crashing into a bush.

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The crash put a dent in my confidence for a while but I got straight back up and did it right this time, remembering to put a small amount of break pressure when taking off in no wind to clear the bushes. In total I flew 25 flights at Las Aguilas with a total air time of about 4 hours.

One of the best flights I did was a 1 hour “Ridge Soar” which is where you stay near the ridge of a hill catching the wind as it is forced up the slope, creating lift. I had enough altitude that I was able to ride it cross country around the top of the mesa passing an inedible waterfall then around until I reached a separate landing site. I was able to fly around performing figure of 8’s for half an hour before making my way back for a safe landing.

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The final day of flying for me saw us all taking a field trip to “The Canyon” at Chicamonca, the second largest canyon in the world (after the grand canyon).

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I was really nervous about flying here. This would be the first time I have taken off anywhere other than at the school site in Las Aguilas. The views were stunning but we were so high that when we were discussing the landing I had no real clue where it was we supposed to be aiming for.

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Well finally it was my turn, I managed to run the short distance to the edge of the cliff before launching myself over the side. Then that was it, I was airborne!

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The ride of the canyon was spectacular. The thermals coming up from the valley were so strong they allowed me to ride hundreds of meters above everything. The view from up there was just phenomenal and the few pictures and video I was only just brave enough to attempt only go a short way towards doing the view justice.

Sadly after an hour of pure exhilaration in the air we had to make our way down due to the winds getting too strong. I wait till last so I could watch where everyone else was heading for the landing. I eventually followed them down to a tiny spit of land next to a river, taking great care to avoid the very strong water and the power lines and trees and other obstacles in my way.

To celebrate and to cool down a little we went to a water park in the canyon.

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I had a phenominal time in Bucaramanga and not just because of the flying. The hostel I stayed at over the two weeks was handily right next to the fly site. It was more of a house than a hostel and had an awesome family atmosphere. Sarita and Sebastian were incredible and made me feel at home at all times.

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The breakfasts Sarita prepared for us in the mornings were incredible and just what we needed before a hard day of flying.

Evenings were usually spent chilling in the flat drinking a beer or two with my fellow pilots or pilots in training.

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Of of my fellow pilots in training, Reed celebrated his 40th birthday with us in Bucaramanga. I probably cant discuss all the madness of that evening but here are a few of the more tame photos.

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I ended my time in Bucaramanga in perfect fashion. Having a BBQ with my excellent new friends, Eric, Erica and Reed. Thanks guys for making my time here so incredible!

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