10 Reasons to Travel

You don’t need reasons to travel.  Your own desire is reason enough, but I spent some time reflecting on some of what travel has provoked for me and I felt like it was worth sharing.

To Laugh

It was a guys’ trip.  We had spent the morning climbing to the rim of the Volcan Santa Ana, the tallest of the chain of volcanoes in El Salvador, among which was perched the airy home and picturesque property where we were now resting.

We were peacefully enjoying the scenery when Lionel, the smiling, pudgy-faced son of the property’s caretaker, interrupted our repose with the roar of a chainsaw. As a 3-year-old, he wasn’t really entrusted with that kind of power tool, but it didn’t stop him from make-believing.

His lips generated the most realistic sonic recreation, and it was clear that he was no amateur, having followed his father around the property to perform maintenance for the better part of his 3 years. At first we were amused, but by the time we realized his sound effects went so far as to mimic the noise of cutting through a branch, we were in stitches.

Lionel and his motormouth chainsaw in El Salvador gave us reason to laugh.

To Cry

The San Blas Islands on the Caribbean side of Panama are the home to the Kuna-Yala indian people.  I’d managed to get my entire family to this dreamy archipelago of white sand and palm-dotted islands and we spent two days exploring the crystal blue waters.

Most of the islands are completely uninhabited, yet those which are, are densely populated. So on the last day there, on our return trip to the mainland, we stopped off to see a reed-and-palm metropolis.

In the alleyway, our kids were greeted by colorful-bead-covered children and were giddy to reveal that they’d brought a game of Candyland to play and give away. It was plopped atop a makeshift table and instantly there were childish squeals of delight as they played the one game they could without the possibility of communication.

Meanwhile, I was fixated on a leopard skin which was drying outside one of the huts.  I approached the woman inside and asked her who had killed the animal (in Spanish). She responded that it was her brother-in-law, who had shot it with an arrow on the mainland.

Our conversation carried on until I noticed that there was a boy, lying atop a tablecloth on the bed behind her, with an ugly swollen arm under which was some kind of pail filled with roots and water.  I asked what had happened and she explained that he’d been playing and broken his arm.  For two weeks, she had been treating him by dousing the arm with this root-water concoction. He smiled at me and then grimaced with pain. I was instantly overcome with emotion.

I couldn’t help but cry there with that little boy in the Kuna-Yala hut in the San Blas Islands.

San blas islands

My son, Miles, with a Kuna Yala indian boy

To Gasp

You’ve heard that life is measured not by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of times you’ve had your breath taken away.  I can tell you about a place which is guaranteed to do just that.

The sun burned down as we passed through the town of Interlaken – between two beautiful lakes in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland. Ahead were the snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps, and there was nothing disappointing about their grandeur.

Cliffs began to rise all around us, yet the road we followed stayed relatively flat as we reached the green-carpeted Lauterbrunnen Valley. We drove until we could no longer resist the urge to free ourselves from the confines of the car, and when we did, it was the most magically breathtaking moment.  More than 70 waterfalls spill edoff these sharp ridges, some splashing to the ground, some completely disintegrating into mist. An alpenhorn rang  in the distance, echoing off the walls.

Like no place else on earth, the Lauterbrunnen Valley will take your breath away.


The Lauterbrunnen Valley will take your breath away

To Love

My wife and I tend not to celebrate anniversaries on our anniversary date.  It’s mid summer, and I’m content to spend my summer weekends in Idaho, but shortly after our 10th anniversary, I booked us a trip to Italy.  The entire trip was full of romantic moments – the echo of clicking heels on vacant alleyways in Venice, cloud-gazing  in the sloped Piazza del Campo in Siena, a morning meal on a picnic table outside a Tuscan farmhouse, but none of these were quite as love-provoking as the seaside walk in the Cinque Terre town of Riomaggiore.

We found a bench where we could sit and talk.  We reflected on a decade of memories and admired the pastel hues of the buildings hanging on the cliffside  while waves crashed against the rocks.  Dozens of locks adorned with hearts and initials clung to a wire fence, where other lovers had “locked their love” in this perfect place.

When our conversation reached an emotional climax, I arose and revealed a lock of my own, which I attached to the fence and locked with a key. Then I promptly flung it into the ocean and turned back to find myself in the loving embrace of my soulmate.

It was a passionate moment, wrought by the romantic setting of Riomaggiore.

We locked our love in Riomaggiore

We locked our love in Riomaggiore

To Give (and to Receive)

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I joined a relief effort that would radically change my perception on life.

We flew into the Dominican Republic, loaded a van with construction equipment, food, and other needed supplies, and drove across the border.  As we entered, I found the strangest juxtaposition of emotions – raw, real suffering – people hurting, scared, worried, and yet there was an undercurrent of hope, excitement, and even joy.

We spent 11 days helping rebuild, reinforcing failing structures, providing materials to schools and orphanages, feeding people who were starving, but more importantly than all that, making friends.

To this day I carry strong friendships with people in Haiti – people who have truly endured an incomprehensible level of suffering. I’d like to think that I helped them – that leaving literally empty-handed, having given everything I had to people who needed it far more than I, was a gift to them, yet it was a gift to me.

I had an opportunity to give in Haiti and it became an opportunity to receive.

haiti children

This darling girl was entralled with her coloring book

To Connect

The excitement and adventure of travel can enhance a relationship like nothing else.  Nicole and I had traveled mostly alone with a few exceptions for a number of years.  We had extended plenty of invitations but synchronizing schedules can be challenging and we never had been able to make it work.

After reading a post on another popular travel blog, I started researching sites to visit Ireland.  After researching sites to visit in Ireland, I was ready to book.  We extended an invitation to a number of friends before reaching out to Marshall and Angie. Within minutes, Marshall had responded, “we’re in” and it felt like the start of something great.

Our flight arrangements differed, so they had already been in Dublin for a day when we arrived.  We picked them up at their hotel and set off to Galway. Over the next nine days in conversations at quaint pubs, through drizzling rain in castle ruins, and beside peat-moss fires in adorable cottages, our casual friendship grew into deep connection.

In the homeland of W. B. Yeats, we recognized the authenticity of his belief that, “There are no strangers, only friends who’ve never met.”

Friends in Ireland

Friends in Ireland

To Taste

If you had told me that the most delicious thing that I would ever taste would be in Germany, I’d have scoffed at you… and yet it’s true.

Our itinerary that day took us from the historic Roman Irish Baths in Freidrichsbad through the Black Forest to the cuckoo clock capital of Triberg. After wandering through the misty fog that hung over the Mummelsee lake, our journey took us along winding roads through tiny towns until we found the Black Forest Open Air Museum – a sort of living history display of the buildings and lifestyle of the people of the Black Forest throughout the ages.

When we’d had our fill of the crafty architecture and the quaint farm culture, we wandered out to a roadside restaurant where we could get our fill of the traditional  Black Forest cake we’d heard so much about. Sadly, it was only mediocre, but one among us (my wife, to be exact) had the sensibility to order the apple crumble cake.

While we were “meh-ing” over the chocolate cherry combo, she was “mmmm-ing” over the pastry apple combo, and it only took me one bite to find out why.  Tender, flaky crust and crumbles, tart apple filling, it was the epitome of sweet and salty and the definition of moist. I ordered my own. Savored it. Then ordered another and savored it, too.

In the Black Forest, we discovered an incomparably delicious taste.

German apple streusel

Deliriously delicious apple crumble pie

To Relax

Life is hustle is bustle, and travel can be, too.  But once in a while you need to make some time to relax, to re-frame, and to refresh your outlook on life.  One way to do that is by reconnecting with nature, and that’s precisely what I found in the jungle of the Dominican Republic.

My first day there was actually chock full of adventure – an insanely exhilarating zipline and a rope swing directly into a waterfall pool really took it out of me, but by the time that was over, I was ready to take it easy.

I was staying at the Dominican Tree House Village, a heavenly retreat from everyday life. I watched a couple doing yoga, which was actually more relaxing than doing it myself since I’m not all that flexible. I wandered through the grounds, admiring colorful flowers, hearing the trickle of a stream, all the while following a hummingbird.  And though the daylight gave me so much to peacefully enjoy, it was the nighttime that inspired me.

As I laid down to sleep, I couldn’t help but hear the cacophony of sounds – so loud in some ways, yet so serene in others.  Tree frogs chirped, exotic birds called, and crickets creaked.

It was a symphony in the Dominican jungle, and I melted into my comfortable bed and truly relaxed.

 To Conquer

To the roof of Africa. That was our objective as we set out from the humid jungle of the lowest slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, where monkeys swing on vines and dense underbrush crowds the trail.

It was 2010 and a group of co-workers and I set out to conquer Africa’s tallest point. Over the days we climbed, the landscape gradually thinned along with the air as we trudged through every climate zone.

What started as a challenge became a trial and what was a trial, became a struggle. It demanded everything we had, breaking us down with steep inclines and intolerably disgusting pink african hot dogs. Yet then it rewarded us with the most marvelous sunsets and above-the-clouds vistas.

Mount Kilimanjaro allowed us to conquer – to feel like victors.

A Kilimanjaro Sunset

A Kilimanjaro Sunset

To Hope

My oldest son has little appreciation for one of my passions – sports, so when I caught a glimmer of his interest in another of my passions – politics, I seized on it and planned us a father/son trip to Washington DC.

We visited the office of Governor Dirk Kempthorne, a former US Senator, Idaho Governor, and Secretary of the Interior, who had held Westley when he was only three months old and now found him sufficiently bright to sit beside him and converse.

We toured the US Capitol building, the Supreme Court, and other iconic sites before departing the city to our countries earlier roots in the Virginia countryside.  We strolled through the rooms of Thomas Jefferson’s home and the streets of Williamsburg, and it was there that I felt the surge of hope.  Westley, just ten years old, plopped himself down aside a seated statue of Jefferson, presumptive of his own equality to this man who was the author of human equality.

I sat and stared, in awe of my son and his swagger, and hoped for the best for him there in the streets of Williamsburg.


Westley taking a selfie with Thomas Jefferson




Posted in Domestic travel, Europe, Family Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Copy My Trip: Paris to Munich in 9 Days

Many people are intimidated by the thought of planning a European vacation – and even more intimidated by the thought of having to pay for it.  But what if you could just plagiarize my trip and do it almost-free?  Suddenly it becomes a little easier, doesn’t it.

Here’s the deal, I don’t believe in proprietary trip itineraries – if I draw one up, I hope and pray other people will use it too, and even better, they can cut out my small mistakes and make it even better, that’s why I’m just going to place my last itinerary right here on “world wide web” for everyone else to see and copy.

Europe Itinerary

9 days seeing some of the best of Europe

And, as you know if you’ve been visiting our blog for a while, doing these kinds of trips in “almost-free” fashion by using frequent flyer miles and points is just how we roll.  We did this entire trip for a little more than $2000 per couple – and we didn’t cut any corners. I’ll be happy to show you how.

First off, I booked our flights with 40k American Airlines miles and a little more than $100 per person.

Paris Trip

If we had paid cash for these flights, we’d have spent almost $3000 before we even set foot on the European continent.

Paris Trip Cost

[Note: The deal I used to get the 50k points on AA is gone and they’ve gotten more stringent on date availability.  I think the best opportunity out there to get enough miles to go to Europe right now is the 60k Delta Skymiles Platinum card – you have to spend $2k in the first three months and pay a $195 annual fee, but 60k Skymiles should get you to Europe in shoulder seasons with some flexibility on dates.]

In keeping with my philosophy of shoulder-season travel, we did this trip in April of 2016.  It could just as easily be done in summer, fall, or magical winter.  I wouldn’t be scared to take on this itinerary any time of year, so don’t let that inhibit you. We basically spent one day traveling to and from, for a total of 11 days away and 9 days and nights in Europe.

Having kids and other obligations, we were a little short – a full two weeks would have been better, and there are lots of ways to button on a few more days and stretch it out a bit, but I’ll just pitch it to you as we did it.

Here were my guiding principles in making these plans:

  • Try to stay 2 consecutive nights in each location to reduce costs and minimize mobilization, but not get stale.
  • Start non-mobilizing days early, and mobilizing days a little later.
  • Keep a good mix of activities – some indoors – castles, cathedrals, and museums, and some outdoors – waterfalls, mountains, town strolls, and hikes.
  • Try not to have to drive more than 4 hours in a given day.
  • Eat meals in 4 different countries.

My favorite trip planning resource is other travel blogs – bloggers genuinely have the best interests of their readers in mind, and tell stories and share experiences so memorably – Rick Steves is great, but so many great ideas come from other bloggers. There’s a reason the travel blogger industry is booming.

This itinerary took us through 5 countries and several small towns, but only one major city.

Day 1: Paris

Arrive at Paris 9am – Uber to hotel and leave bags there, then go hit the town.

Sites to visit: Louvre, Palais Royale, Arc De Triomphe, Notre Dame, St. Chappelle, Eiffel Tower

Overnight: The Intercontinental Paris – Le Grande. Totally free thanks to my one free night per year from the IHG Rewards Club Card.

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Day 2: Paris

Using Uber, we split rides in fancy Mercedes vans all over the city usually paying 15-40 euros.

Sites to visit: Montmarte,  Sacre Coeur Basilica, the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, the Army Museum, Napoleon’s Tomb.

Overnight: The Intercontinental Paris – Le Grande. Totally free thanks to my one free night per year from the IHG Rewards Club Card.

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Day 3: Paris to Beaune

We got up early and took an Uber ride to Orly airport where we picked up a 9-passenger van from Sixt for ~$1000/week.  We drove first to Fontainebleau, then to Guedelon – a twelfth century castle in the making

Overnight: This is the one part of the trip I should have changed.  I didn’t want to drive too much, so we planned a stop in Beaune – a nice city, but nothing spectacular.  We should have gone onto Colmar and spent 3 nights there.

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Day 4: Colmar, France

Colmar itself is a gem – blending French and German culture, food, and history – all of the villages along the Alsace wine route are incredible.

Our favorite little village was Eguisheim – just absolutely idyllic in every way.  Being there in the shoulder season, we could actually enjoy some empty cobblestone streets at the expense of not having flowers on balconies in full bloom.

Overnight: We rented an amazing place called Aux2Cigognes right on the little canal in Colmar.  It was perfect in every way – affordable and unique, exactly what you hope for in a vacation rental.

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Day 5: Black Forest, Germany

We started this day very early – heading to the 170 year old Roman Irish Baths in Baden Baden. It’s quite the experience.  Then we made our way down through the windy roads of the black forest – stumbling onto mummelsee – a perfect Black Forest experience, strolling around a foggy lake.

Between there and Triberg, there’s an awesome Black Forest open air museum where you can take in centuries of history in the area – unique architecture and farm life – just a treat.

We went on into Triberg – cuckoo clock central and home to some beautiful waterfalls.

It made for a late night getting back into colmar, but totally worth it.

Overnight: Again at Aux2Cigognes.

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Day 6: Colmar to Grindelwald, Switzerland

The sun greeted us warmly as we crossed the border into Switzerland.  We drove along the shore of Lake Thun, stopping first at a lakeside castle, then at the trailhead to St Beatus Caves.  We brought a delicious array of meats, breads, and cheeses to the overlook at the caves and took in the most magnificent viewing combo of the spring waterfalls, mountains, and Lake Thun.

We arrived in Grindelwald with plenty of time to settle in and take in the Swiss Alps.

Overnight: We rented an adorable swiss chalet on Homeaway.com with this jaw-dropping view.  In our fridge there was cheese, made freshly from the cows right there on the farm.  This place was spectacular, and also worked out to be the least expensive place we stayed in the most expensive country.

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Day 7: Lauterbrunnen Valley

This was our most leisurely day – with very little travel.  We spent most of it in the Lauterbrunnen valley, took a tram up to gimmelwald, hiked through fog with glimpses of grandeur to Murren and had the most delicious hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted.

For dinner we indulged in a spread of fondue.

Overnight: At the same adorable swiss chalet.

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Day 8: Grindelwald to Garmisch

We covered a lot of ground this day – stopping to shop at clothing stores in Lucerne, an antique shop in Lichtenstein, and a chocolate factory in Austria.  Despite the travel, the scenery was amazing all along the way.

Overnight: The last two nights we stayed at another Homeaway.com property – this beautiful home in Grainau, just outside Garmisch Partenkirchen.

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Day 9: Bavaria, Germany

We started the day by traversing the world’s longest suspension walkbridge – Highline 179.  It straddles a verdant valley which is overwatched by the ruins of an ancient castle – a marvel to visit and part of the $8 entrance to the bridge – a pittance.

Then we went on to Neuschwanstein castle – a wonder unto itself.  The bridge where visitors normally take pictures was closed, so we had to hop some fences and clamber up a slope to capture the castle from this angle – one that did not disappoint.

Making our way back to Grainau, clouds hung like lingerie atop the Zugspitze.

The meals in this area were superb – who knew it would be the German food, not the French food, which was unforgettable.

Overnight: Again at the home in Grainau.

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The next morning we drove 1.5 hours to the Munich airport where we departed.

It was a quicker trip than we’d like to have planned, but with kids and obligations at home, it was sucking the marrow out of life for as many days as we could muster.

There’s almost nothing I would change about the trip – it was a masterful combination of everything we wanted – truly an experience to remember – precisely why we travel.

Traveling with friends sure makes things less expensive – by the time we split up our total lodging and transportation costs, we were under $1100/couple.  Even eating like kings, our total cost on the trip was not much more than $2000.  This is why you cannot afford to not travel the almost-free way.

So, I hope you’ll copy my trip.

Posted in Europe, From Wanderlusting to Wandering, Fun Travel Stories, Priority Club, Vacation Rentals | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Travel to Europe: You’re doing it all wrong

Thousands of you, no, hundreds of thousands of you will travel to Europe this year.  You’ll pay big money for flights.  You’ll go in the summer.  You’ll fly in and out of the same location.  You’ll travel by train.  You’ll stay in hotels.  You’ll eat in restaurants.

You’ll do it all wrong.

Let’s get one thing clear – the important part is that you not let the wonders of Europe go unseen. It matters more to me that you’ll commit now to spend some time discovering idyllic villages, soaking up centuries of history, indulging in delicious foods, and reveling in rich, rich culture at some point in the very near future, even if you do choose to do it the wrong way.

Yet, my whole point in writing this is to tell you that doing it the right way is cheaper, more fun, and even more exquisite.

What is the right way? Let me break it down.

Pay points, not money, for flights

Generally, the biggest expense of travel is the airfare itself. You’re looking a somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000-$2000 per person for flights.  The problem with dishing out that kind of dough is that it makes you a miser once you get there.


This is how we recently booked flights to Europe.

This is how someone else would have booked the same flight.

This is how someone else would have booked the same flight.

If you want to inject your European travel adventure with a feeling of frivolous freedom, start by getting there for free. I know that sounds easier said than done, but if you ask the thousands of followers of our blog, they’d tell you its easier done than thought.

A good base rule is that you can get flights to Europe for 45k-60k miles if you’re willing to be flexible and look a little bit, and if you’re willing to go “during the off-season” (which we’ll talk about next). That means you need 100k-120k frequent flyer miles for a couple getaway and that’s not a terribly high hurdle.  I could go on and on about this, but that’s really what our blog is all about. We’ve been posting almost-free travel recipes for more than five years now and a little bit of poking around will set you on your way.

Opt for spring, fall, or winter, not summer

If you live in Phoenix, I get it. I don’t blame you for wanting to escape July and August, but if you live anywhere else, for hell sakes, spend your summers at home! If you follow the traditional approach to vacationing, you’ll wind up fighting the crowds, higher prices, and the heat everywhere you go. Sure you have a better chance at having sunny days, but you’ll spend half of them in museums, anyway.

Spring, fall, and winter all make for far better travel pictures and isn’t the reason we travel so that we can take pictures and post them to Instagram for our friends to like, anyways?

best of switzerland

Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland – Photo credit: Marshall Griffin

This picture of spring in the Lauterbrunnen valley wouldn’t be nearly so awesome were it not for the thick blanket of clouds and fog that kept the colors sharp and added to the mystique of the 72 waterfalls which plunge off huge cliff walls on both sides.  I know because I was there the day before when it was sunny and my pictures were washed out and shadowy.


Fall morning on Lake Bled, Slovenia

Similarly, the magic of the seasons just adds to the experience. We visited Lake Bled in Slovenia and captured this moment – rowing out to the fall-colored island in the crisp morning air.

I know I’ve already made my point, but I’ll go ahead and belabor it with a winter example. Just tell me what, exactly, would be wrong with visiting Hallstatt, Austria in the winter?  That’s right, not a damn thing.

Hallstatt, Austria in the Winter - Photo Credit: Stephanie Bowen

Hallstatt, Austria in the Winter – Photo Credit: Stephanie Bowen

When you opt to travel in the shoulder season, sure, you may find yourself having taken the tram to the tiny Swiss alpine hamlet of Gimmelwald (where Heidi was filmed), only to find it socked in with fog and desolate, but maybe then you’d take a rainy stroll to the next village of Murren where you sit down for the most delicious mug of hot chocolate you’ve ever had, and who wants to miss out on that?

Fly open-jaw, not in&out

For most people “open-jaw” is something you get when you look at that picture of the Lauterbrunnen valley (go ahead, scroll back up and have a look one more time), but for me, it means not backtracking and maximizing your experience/mobilization ratio.

An open-jaw flight arrangement simply means flying into one city and out of another.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the mindset of round-trip flights in and out of the same city, but chances are you’re going to be spending some time in other places, so if you can avoid retracing your path, all the better.

If you do have to go in&out, at least arrange a loop itinerary, which allows you to see more and not waste the valuable vacation time that we Americans don’t get enough of anyhow.

I like to think of travel itineraries as “slashes,” cutting from one major city to another.  It also helps make booking flights with points easier, as you can take advantage of the best routings to and from different airports.

Doing it this way also allows you to not exhaust your agenda in a single city.  You could certainly spend an entire week or two in Paris, but if you’re like me, you’ll become city-stir-crazy.  Spend 2 days at the beginning or end of a “slash” itinerary and then get out of town. You can catch the rest on the way into or out of another trip in the future. Embrace the open-jaw!

Skip the train and rent a car

Yes, Europe has very efficient rail infrastructure.  It’s modern and fast, and somewhat affordable, but there’s not a train in the world that can take you to Civita Di Bagnoregio – one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever seen. If you’re on a train you can’t pass under a massive suspension bridge and decide, “hey, we should pull off and check that out.”

Estruscan hill city

Civita Di Bagnoregio, an Etruscan hill city 1 hour north of Rome

Sure, there’s a train that will take you to all five of the Cinque Terre, but having your own vehicle in Europe allows for the kind of off-the-beaten-track adventures. Parking is kind of a challenge, but less so if you’re heeding our non-summer advice. Navigating has been made easy by turn by turn GPS. Driving itself is fun and adds to the adventure.  Fuel is inexpensive (at least at the moment), especially when costs are shared. Car time is great for connecting with travel companions and scenic vistas.

Will there be some tolls? Of course, but all told (see how I did that?), it will still come out cheaper and far more convenient.  Best of all, you won’t have to give yourself a one-hour scenic tour of the train station when you show up just a few minutes late for the train you’re trying to catch.

As an added bonus, there’s a 100% chance you will not be affected if or when the train personnel n a given country decide to strike – a common occurrence that has a way of really wreaking havoc on a vacation.

Stay in vacation homes, not hotels

Somewhere a hotel executive is having a hard time sleeping.  She’s worrying about Airbnb.com and Homeaway.com, and for good reason.


Live like a king in Peter’s Castle

The idea behind hotel chains is that no matter where you are, your stay experience is the same.  How lame does that sound? Shun the unique – when in Ireland, pretend you’re in Houston.  I can’t think of anything less attractive.  Why not stay in Peter’s castle – an 800 year-old castle tower which has been painstakingly restored to kingly appointment… wait for it… for far less than you’d pay to stay at a hotel!

If you’re not staying in vacation homes, you’re robbing yourself of one of the best experiences travel has to offer – the chance to live like the locals.


Grindelwald from the porch of our vacation rental home

On our recent travel to Europe, we stayed in a farmhouse in the shadows of the Swiss alps. In broken English, our host showed us around the perfect home.  After settling in, I went to put some of our food items in the refrigerator, where I found a block of cheese – made from the milk of the cows in the neighboring barn, and cured in the cellar below the home we were staying in. Did I mention that it cost us half of what a lame 2 star motel would have cost us?

If all that weren’t enough, vacation homes also offer three other significant benefits – they allow you the convenience of cooking food at home and doing laundry.  Imagine how much less you have to pack if you know you’ll have a chance to do some mid-trip laundry. Lastly, if you’re in a group, there’s nothing like stoking a fire and gathering around it to play cards, tell stories, eat snacks and enhance the experience. There’s no better way to do it, I’m here to tell you.

Eat picnics, not just at restaurants

Ok, let me clarify, unless you’re absolutely strapped or are 0% foodie and eat only to live, you must have the restaurant experiences in Europe, but also don’t deprive yourself of the magic of a picnic.

For less than $5-10, you can pick up some fresh-baked bread, local cheeses, and unique meats just about everywhere in Europe.  You can do the same with pastries or fruit for breakfasts.

The best part is selecting the scenic environment for your picnic.  Sure there are restaurants which offer great scenery and $24 plates of spaghetti, but there’s nothing wrong with making your own little meal and choosing a proper setting.

meats and cheeses

The view of Lake Thun from St Beatus Caves – a great place for a picnic

Doing something like this can allow you eat one or two meals a day like a king, and still keep your food budget below $100/day or lower.

Doing it right

Truth is, I’m secretly hoping you won’t take my advice.

I like taking pictures of vacant gilded palace halls far more than I do elbowing away the crowds, and I’d just as soon not have competition.

I’d much rather find perfectly blissful vacation homes with abundant availability than to have hoards of people bailing on hotels in exchange for more authentic lodging.

But if you do happen to listen and we see you pulled off in your Peugeot, huddled under an umbrella for a rainy April picnic in the seaside village of Ribadesella, please just do me a favor and throw me the double-W WorldWanderlusting gang sign…

Posted in Europe, Fun Travel Stories, How to Wanderlust, Italy, Travel Tips, Travel Tricks | Leave a comment

An 8-night trip to Costa Rica all planned for you

One of our long-time WW followers asked us to put together a Costa Rica Itinerary for him.  Planning something like that sounded like way more fun than everything else I’m supposed to be doing, so here I am, dedicating my Sunday evening to someone else’s wanderlust (and daydreaming of my next trip to CR).

We love the freedom that having your own vehicle provides, and that’s especially handy in Costa Rica, where it’s common to be driving along and find a tree full of monkeys, crocodiles under a bridge, or a roadside stand with the most enormous strawberries you’ve ever set eyes on.  I have used Avis (booked through Expedia.com) and 4x4RentACar.

It’s not an absolute must to have a 4×4 as the roads in CR are way better than they used to be, but it may come in handy, particularly if you’re going to some of the more remote areas that we are of course recommending.

Many of the flights coming into SJO come in late, so you’ll want to spend that first night somewhere close to the airport in Alajuela.  The budget approach would be to stay at Hotel Pacande, or a slightly more expensive option is the Hotel Aeropuerto.  Just, whatever you do, don’t stay in the city of San Jose.  It’s further away and ends up backtracking where you’re headed.

Now, the next morning you’ll load up and head out.  Here’s the full driving itinerary for all .

Costa Rica plan trip

Costa Rica 8 Night Driving Itinerary

By about 10am you’ll make it to the La Paz Waterfall Garden.  This is effectively a zoo, but not your typical zoo.  Much more of a hands-on experience.  There are beautiful waterfalls, gobs of hummingbirds, an enormous aviary with some breathtakingly beautiful birds and much more.


Toucans at La Paz Waterfall Garden

Driving from there to La Fortuna will take some time, but do it leisurely.  Stop in little towns along the way and at scenic overlooks.  Costa Rica is beautiful from the road so don’t think of it as transportation, think of it as touring.

If you really want to splurge in La Fortuna, book at least one night at Tabacon Hot Springs. The setting there is like something out of a fantasy novel.  If you’re on the cheap, there are plenty of places there that can meet that need for you.

The next day you can make your way to La Fortuna Waterfall.  You’ll descend 471 steps to an incredible waterfall you can feel free to swim in.  It’s a great way to cool off before the obligatory climb out.

There are many fun shops to visit in La Fortuna as well.  Find your way to a local “soda” (local restaurant serving typical food – “comida tipica.”) Don’t be surprised when you’re sharing restaurant space with an iguana or something of the like.

Comida Tipica de Costa Rica

Comida Tipica de Costa Rica

You’ll also want to see if you can get a good look at Arenal Volcano – what used to be an active volcano until a few years ago. Maybe plan a little hike or just spend some time exploring the national park there.

Stay another night in La Fortuna so that you can get up early the next morning and start heading towards Monteverde.

The road to Monteverde can be quite nasty and you gain a lot of altitude.  That makes sense when you realize that Monteverde is not only the continental divide, it’s also a cloud forest.

This is the perfect place to stay in an awesome local lodging like this farm house on Airbnb. At $145/night, split between two couples this place is a bargain and makes for a destination unto its own.

Monteverde airbnb house

Monteverde Farm House on Airbnb

But before you go and spend the whole day there, get out and see what there is to do in Monteverde – hanging bridges, ziplines, massive mahogany trees, all kinds of animal life.  You are going to love this because it’s one very few places in the world where such incredible old growth forest still remains.


The next morning, find another soda and enjoy the costa rica version of breakfast – gallo pinto, a rice and bean mixture that’s served alongside eggs.  Dee-lish!

You’ll head south towards Puntarenas, where you get along the coast. Again, take your time driving and enjoy the scenery.  You’ll come to a point where you cross the River Tarcoles on a bridge and you’ll notice that many cars are pulled over to the side of the road.

Costa Rican kids will be trying to sell you stuffed crocodiles and promise to watch your car in exchange for a few bucks while you go lean over and look down on the army of crocodiles which patrol the river below the bridge.  It’s an eerie feeling to look down and see dozens of them.tarcoles crocodiles

Keep going once you’ve had your fill and find a place to stay in closer to Manuel Antonio rather than Quepos.

The next day you can spend the better part of the day at Manuel Antonio National Park.  This place is a veritable wilderness and wildlife wonderland. Beautiful beaches, several species of monkeys, snakes, and so much more.  Hike to lookouts and hidden coves, bring in lunch for a picnic at an amazing overview.

dominical airbnb homeBefore dark, get back to the car and keep making your way south towards Dominical.  Again, you could find a cheap little hotel, but I’m just so high on these amazing little places on Airbnb.  How can you pass up a place with this much character?  And for $105/night? Lets do 2 nights!

Dominical is a chill little surfer town.  Here you can try to surf in some relatively tame waves, enjoy the hippy vibe, and use it as a homebase to explore.

Nearby is one of my favorite beaches – Playa Ventanas, where tunnels cut through the rock outcropping are pounded by waves and the tide.

You’ll also want to hike up to Nauyaca waterfall and find the hidden away Pozo Azul swimming hole. Drive to the top of the pass and have dinner at the El Mirador near Tinamaste – one of the best meals I’ve ever had… so good, I had it twice in the same night.

Costa Rica food

Those activities should keep you plenty busy before you have to make your way back to Alajuela for departure.

***WorldWanderlusting pro-tip: Make your stays at Airbnb properties totally free by reimbursing yourself with the 40,000 points you get from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard. That’s more than $400 in free travel after spending $3000 in the first 90 days of having the card.

See what else we’ve written about Costa Rica.

Posted in Car Rentals, Central America, Fun Travel Stories, Hiking, Travel Itineraries | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Newbie questions about almost-free travel

Valley of the Temples Burma

Sunrise in the Valley of the Temples

A reader recently asked us these questions and we thought our response would make for a great post.  Here are the questions and our responses:

1) For a “newbie” like me, what are the top 3 or 4 cards you’d recommend? (We’re just looking to do some free travel within the USA to start out… flights, hotels, that kind of thing.)

I like the idea of having multiple travel rewards cards in each category – airline, hotel, and bank points, that way you can almost always arrange them to work together to pull off some awesome almost-free travel.  Narrowing it down, though, at the moment, here are the 3 cards I’d recommend:

    1. Citi® Platinum Select® / AAdvantage® World MasterCard®: Even though American is joining the other airlines in devaluing their points, their program still represents some of the best value on international travel.  This offer is for 50k AA miles after making $3000 in purchases after the first 3 months.
    2. IHG® Rewards Club Select Credit Card: A while ago I wrote that this card was the new king of the hill for hotel cards for 2 reasons – the Point Breaks hotels you can stay at for 5k points/night, and the ongoing benefit that every year you get a free night in ANY hotel in exchange for a paltry $49 annual fee.  Furthermore, the offer is 60k points after $1000 in spending in the first three months.
    3. Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard®: This is the most flexible and best offer among the bank point cards which allow you to reimburse yourself for travel expenses.  This way you can book on Airbnb or pay for a rental car and then reimburse yourself without having to worry about whether there’s availability. This offer is for 40k points after spending $3000 in the first 3 months.

2) Would you recommend doubling up (one for me, one for my wife) on each card (at the same time)? Or would you “stagger” them (I get a particular card today, my wife gets the same card a year from now)?

That really depends on whether the card your applying for offers enough bonus miles to do what you want to do, but as a general rule I’d say to stagger them.  You certainly want to “pile” your points so that you have more with particular programs that you can use for bigger trips or bring along more people.

You may want to get an airline card yourself and have your wife get a hotel card, then switch next time, but I’ve done it simultaneously as well.

The one thing we always say is that you should never add a spouse as a second user because that removes the possibility for them to apply separately and get their own bonus.

Cypress Garden South Carolina

The blackwater swamp of Cypress Garden

3) Is there a “rule of thumb” for comparing the bonus points/miles from one card to the next? Or is it a completely different structure/program for each & every card? Is there an easy way to compare 50,000 “miles” with card A to 50,000 “points” with card B? Do most of the cards basically just equate 10,000 miles/points to $100, Or does each card have its own unique system for redeeming miles/points?

For the most part you can say that cards and point programs are somewhat similar with regard to redemption levels, but that doesn’t always hold true.  Our Using Airline Miles and Using Hotel Points pages are the best to evaluate the different programs. For the most part, points within categories – airline, bank are fairly equal.

Some notable exceptions are that Starwood Hotel Points stretch a lot further – starting at 3,000 points for a night redemption, and that Club Carlson Gold Points program requires much more than most other programs per night redemption – that helps explain why the Starwood card gives 1 point per dollar spent while the Club Carlson offers 5.  The trick is to learn these differences and exploit them to your advantage.

4) I’ve read that multiple credit inquiries of the same TYPE that occur within a certain time period (maybe 1-2 weeks, as I recall?) will only count as a SINGLE inquiry (and therefore only ding your credit 1 time). You know if there’s any truth to this? Any benefit to going gang-busters and applying for a whole bunch of different cards all at once (keeping in mind, of course, that I’ll need to make sure I can hit the minimum spend requirements within the 90-day time frames)?

My understanding is that credit inquiries only get lumped together on the same day with the same credit bureau.  That’s why you see us going “app-o-rama” style.  

There are some exceptions to this – be careful with Chase, they will not approve new applications within 60 days of a previous application, so don’t try to get two at once with them.

My suggestion would be to vary the applications with different offerers and, yes, to make sure that meeting minimum requirements won’t force you to spend money you wouldn’t otherwise.


These were great questions and we’re pleased to have Kevin wanderlusting with us. 🙂

You probably have a lot more questions and many of them can be answered at our FAQ page, but please don’t hesitate to comment with more inquiries and we’ll work them into another post to get more of you out and enjoying everything the world has to offer.

St John

Powdery white sand of Trunk Bay

Posted in Credit Cards, How to Wanderlust | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Planning Your First Cruise Tips: Dos and Don’ts

Cruise relaxThrow a dart at a spinning globe and if it lands in the blue, chances are there’s a cruise ship which sails somewhere nearby. As a means of choosing an itinerary for your first cruise, this probably isn’t the most reliable. But there are a few universal hints that can launch you on the right course to ensure those first-timer, rookie errors are ironed out long out before you leave home.
Multi-stop cruises with few days at sea might not be ideal if you’d prefer to relax on deck and gaze at nothing but the ocean. For the insatiable explorer, however, multi-city trips in the Western Med including Barcelona, Florence, Pisa and Rome might be more up your street. But whether you’re on a cruise around the Mexican Pacific or the Yucatán peninsula, there are some tips which apply across the globe.
DO check their definition of “all-inclusive”
Check the term “all inclusive”. It’s true, cash rarely changes hands on board, but the only things that are usually included are accommodation, food, soft drinks and ship’s passage. On many lines, alcohol, excursions and premium restaurants are charged to your room key, linked to your credit card, so be sure to research, plan and budget for this before you leave home.
DON’T be late
Whichever one of the many cruise deals out there you decide to choose, whether it’s Central America, the Eastern Med or the Caribbean, one non-negotiable constant is the ship’s timetable: it will sail without you if you’re late. Eliminate the risks of flight delays and book a hotel in port the night before so you join the ship rested, relaxed and in plenty of time.
DON’T suffer motion sickness
If you’re worried about seasickness, book a cabin amidships (in the middle of the vessel) and on a lower deck so the pitch and roll won’t affect you so much in lively seas. An even more reliable way to ward this off is to take ginger, before and during your cruise. Fresh, candied or in non-alcoholic ginger beer, it’s an effective preventative and cure.
Once you’ve nailed that, you’ll fully enjoy those after-dinner moonlit strolls on deck as the bow gently rises and falls on the Eastern Med or the Caribbean Sea. And as you contemplate the carpet of stars overhead, you’ll marvel at why this unique experience of our planet has until now felt so elusive.
Images by mbarrison and LukeGordon1, used under Creative Commons license
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The Grand Teton

I spent several weeks of every childhood summer in the Targhee National Forest in the shadow of the three peaks of the Tetons. Countless evenings I watched, transfixed, as the setting sun cast a warm orange glow on the sharp granite peak of the tallest of them – the Grand Teton.

I told myself, “someday I’ll stand at the top of it. Someday I’ll see what it sees – hundreds of miles in every direction.” I’ve spent twenty years saying that.

Earlier this summer, I was camping nearby and watched as a beautiful combination of a pink sunset and a brilliant rainbow stretched across the familiar backdrop.  Table Mountain was visible – a summit I’d achieved many times, but the Teton itself remained hidden behind the clouds, a metaphor for the way it had always eluded me.  Again I found myself craving its conquest. “This is the year,” I thought.Rainbow sunset

So the first week in September, when my neighbor, Victor, who has climbed the Grand Teton many times sent me an email fishing for interest, my response was quick and clear, “I’m in. Say when.”

The next week brought a perfect weather forecast – a critical factor for a peak that’s often shrouded with thunderstorms. We settled on taking the Owen Spalding route and the “car-to-car” schedule – opting to make the 20 mile trip in a single day, rather than bring camping gear and stay overnight (a decision I’d later regret). I recruited my brother Sheldon to join us, and at midnight, the three of us met to divy up the climbing gear and pack our bags.

By 2:00am we were on the trail with nothing but headlamps and stars to light our way.  The first few miles had little incline, so the conversation was great and the going was easy, but it wasn’t long before a brutal set of switchbacks changed all that.

After about 5 miles, the trail disintegrated into fields of massive boulders which we climbed over with enthusiasm and vigor. I was just giddy to finally be approaching the towering mountain I had admired since childhood.

“Giddy” quickly changed to “grumpy” as the ascent sharpened as we climbed out of Garnet Canyon.  We were a little over four hours in and the sun was just starting to rise, which gave us a great excuse to pause and enjoy the moment. The grumpy went away… for the time being.Owen Spalding

The sun came in handy as the next stretch to the top of the lower saddle was a complicated fixed-rope climb.  We pulled ourselves up the line and arrived at the saddle – about 10,000 feet – right around 7:30am.

From there the summit was visible and didn’t seem too intimidating – proof that things aren’t always as they seem.  The incline steepened and the trail often disappeared into slippery shale. If that weren’t bad enough, the thin air also entered the equation and suddenly every step was burdensome.

upper saddleWe clambered on all four limbs until we came to “the eye of the needle.” On other hikes I’ve heard spots like these referred to as “fat man’s misery.” You get the point… it tested our flexibility.

Shortly thereafter we got our first taste of “exposure” – the unprotected risk of falling.  Even though the potential drop was a mere 30 feet, the adrenaline kicked in as we gripped a ledge and eased along it. Sheldon, in particular, had a hard time with the risk of falling.  The danger combined with exhaustion was wearing on him.

Another steep shale slope awaited us en route to the upper saddle and where before I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful sparkle of the various colors of granite, now I couldn’t have cared if it were sparkling with gold.  I just wanted to be up there.

Reaching the upper saddle at 13,000 feet was satisfying, but what awaited us was terrifying.  If any one of us had suggested we bag it and go back down, the other two would undoubtably have also conceeded.  But when the temptation arose, it was pushed away with a chant of solidarity, “we’ve got this.”image4The task at hand was now to work our way across two roped traverses – one named “the belly roll,” and another named “the crawl.” With the wind now whipping wildly, it had gotten cold and the slow going only made it worse. Even still, we made it across, and then worked our along another roped route, this time a vertical chimney.

From there we roped the three of us together and made our way along the catwalk – a seemingly unending stretch of more dangerous climbing at altitudes that made even small movements taxing.  By this time emotions had kicked in as we realized we were almost to the summit.  What had been an incredibly difficult climb was almost over… well, half-over. We still had to get down.

The three of us all got a little teary-eyed as the peak came into sight. It was a combination of relief and reward – pride in having achieved it.  We pulled ourselves over that last edge and onto the 13,770 foot platform that rises above everything else for hundreds of miles in every direction. We allowed ourselves to enjoy the moment and celebrated with wheat thins and bacon cream cheese. A fitting celebration.Grand teton summit

When we’d had our fill, we scrambled down to the first rappel pitch and tied ourselves in. Going down was infinitely easier, albeit nerve-wracking. A little more downclimbing and another rappel took us back to the upper saddle.Grand teton rappel

Going down had the effect of increasing our oxygen intake and we felt it right away, but whatever joy it brought was killed by the realization that we still had almost 10 miles to hike and it was almost 5:00pm.  I started wondering if we were even going to make it off the mountain.

Still, somehow we found it possible to descend and by 7:00pm we were back at the lower saddle.  At this point we acknowledged that without a little rest, we weren’t going to be able to make it.  Another climber extended the courtesy of borrowing us his tent and pad and we took a dreamy one hour nap. We barely made it back to the fixed rope line before dark.

Again the headlamps led our way and we made our way through hundreds of boulders – leaning heavily on our walking sticks.  Back down to the switchbacks which somehow now seemed even longer.  Our steps were more plodding than hiking, throwing one leg in front of the other and catching ourselves before we fell.  The bottoms of my feet felt like a single massive blister and every part of me ached.

The last five mile stretch was never-ending as I complained, out loud, to no one in specfic. I moaned and groaned and carried on, powered only by an urgent desire to get back to the car.

When we finally saw reflectors in our headlamps I was more overjoyed than I was upon summiting.  It had been a intense, grueling experience, but one that was worth every minute of pain.

I had triumphed the trials of that preeminent peak. I saw what it sees and breathed what it breathes. I climbed the Grand Teton.

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