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.

Aadvantage

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.

pletna

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.

Airbnb.com

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.

homeaway

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

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.

Monteverde_bosque

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.
4848239742_57809f0774_b
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
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Fun Travel Stories, Hiking, Manventure | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

My Unusual Highlight From My Trip to Paris

Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, or the Notre Dame are favorites for most people who visit the capital of France.  This romantic destination abounds with sites that most people dream about throughout their entire lives.  They desires so badly to stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower, or to contemplate the Mona Lisa.  If they could simply do this, their life would be fulfilled.  My trip to Paris, however, included an unusual highlight of the trip.

1000 Fights’ Advice

The Fighting Couple is a close friend of ours.  Their blog focuses primarily on couple travel and the fights that it causes.  Mike and Lucy are connoisseurs of unique travel ideas.  Their special skill is the ability to seek out the “road less traveled.”

I called Mike before my trip in an effort to find one of these gems that would make my Parisian trip stand out.  Without hesitation he had a suggestion that fit within his speciality.  He told me that I was to visit a grave.  Wow.  Really? A grave, like a place where somebody’s dead bones lay?  Umm.  Try again man.  How about something cool dude?  Little did I know that his suggestion would change my entire attitude toward the French people and love America more than ever before.

Visit a Grave?

I’m betting right now that 90% of you know who Marquis de Lafayette is. You’ve probably seen things named after Lafayette like towns, squares, and statues, but you’re not sure why.  Did you know there are roughly 20 towns or counties in America named Lafayette?

So what makes this guy so cool?  Why is everything named after a guy that we don’t even know?  I’m not sure, but I am happy to enlighten you about this remarkable man.

Marquis de Lafayette

Here is a Frenchman that was born with tons of money.  He was a high class citizen from birth.  One day he bumped into a recruiter that the USA had sent over to Europe to hire mercenaries that would fight for us.  In exchange for their knowledge we offered pay.

Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lafayette wasn’t interested in pay, but he was interested in fighting for America.  He decided to join the cause, so he purchased a boat that could take himself and the other recruits to America.  Because of his high class status these arrangements were all made in secret.  On his way out of town he dropped a letter in the mail to his father-in-law explaining his intentions.  By the time he set sail an urgent message arrived from his father-in-law requesting that he get his butt back in France.

Lafayette considered his options before finally deciding to turn back to reason with his father-in-law.  While he was enroute to the rezendvous point Lafayette made a final decision to abandon the meeting and return to the boat.  His pull to help America was too great.  Can you imagine the rage of your wife’s father?  The funny thing is that he later rendered the support, money, and influence of his relatives later in the war (including his father-in-law).

He spent the next years of his life as a General in the cause of our independence from England.  At one point he was nearly killed by a bullet, and hadn’t even fully healed when he returned to the battlefield.  He and General George Washington became best friends during their shoulder to shoulder service.  They were such great friends that Lafayette later named his third child George Washington Lafayette.

Because of his connections, he was able to bring great influence of the French, who actually recognized us as a nation prior to England granting us our independence.  He recruited the help of their Navy, and played a pivotal role in the final battle of Yorktown.  With the French Navy in the harbor, then being surrounded by Washington, Lafayette, and Rochambeau it forced Charles Cornwallis to surrender.

Without question this man had made a significant contribution to our Independence.  We arguably could not have prevailed were it not for his involvement in bringing the help of the French to our aid.  His selfless service allowed us to break away from England to for the United States of America.  This Frenchman is a hero.  We should honor his significant contribution toward our freedom.

After the war was over he returned to France, where he spent the majority of his life.  At a later age he decided to return to America.  He received a warm welcome wherever he went.  We hailed him as an American hero for his service.  He was pleased to see that we had named countless cities after him as well as squares, monuments, and statues.  He loved America, and we loved him.

One of his final tasks was to return to Bunker Hill, Massachusetts.  This location played a pivotal role early on in the war when George Washington was able to push the British out of Boston from this battle.  He took soil from this battleground that he brought home with him to France.  As his life drew to a close, he had instructed his son George Washington Lafayette to sprinkle the soil from Bunker Hill on his grave after his death.

Parisian Highlight

Visit this grave and stand on American soil.  Know that he loved America enough to request that he be buried in our soil  Soil for which he spilled his own blood, and which has given us the blessings of living in America.

How to Find Marquis de Lafayette’s Grave

This place is VERY unassuming.  Most of the residents who live in the area have NO idea that there is a cemetery nearby, so directions will be important to you.

The address is 35 Rue de Picpus.  It is located in the 12th arronidissement.  The place is located in front of a Renault dealership that looks like this:

highlight paris

There is NO sign outside the door. You’ve just got to find the door with the address 35 Rue de Picpus. It looks like this:
LafaayetteYou have to push a button and they’ll open the door for you.  This will bring you to a plaza that looks like this:

PICPUS CEMETERYUpon entering the plaza, turn immediately to your right and knock on a door.  A man attended to us and charged 2 Euro each for an entrance fee to the cemetery.  He then directed us to the Blue Gate on the left hand side of the chapel, through which we entered a long park.  visit grave

Cruise back to the back right hand corner and you’ll find the graves.  Look for the American Flag so you can visit Marquis for me.

Fun Thing to Do

I encourage you to bring a George Washington quarter from the year you were born to lay on the tomb of Marquis de Lafayette.  My wife and I did this, which really enhanced our experience.

Please.  Spend the time to make this trip.  It will be worth your time to pay homage to a man who has blessed your life immensely.  Thank you Marquis!

Posted in Europe, Family Travel, Fun Travel Stories, Travel Itineraries, Travel Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Five Finger Formula For a Frequent Flyer Fortune

I had a streak in college when I “broke bad.” I was a straight-up kleptomaniac for about a week.  I went from being the kid who felt immense guilt over yoinking a pack of bubble gum, to a guy who shamelessly stole Christmas gifts for every member of his family. It started out with stuffing a pair of snowboarding mittens into a box of boots I was already buying.  It was a dishonest, homemade version of “buy-one-get-one-free,” and I justified it despite knowing it was wrong.

At the peak of my depravity, I walked into an office supply/shipping store and picked up a $24 Rand McNally Road Atlas off the shelf, walked back to the back of the store, put it in a large envelope, and paid $4.50 to mail it to myself.

While I’ll admit that I’m still a little awestruck by my own clever methods, I’m not proud of those days.  And while I’m as value-conscious as I’ve ever been, I’m a reformed man.  At least, I think I am.  You see, now I get my “five-finger-discount” on the biggest of my spending categories – travel – and I get it by understanding and using loyalty point programs.

It doesn’t sound as flashy, but I’m telling you, it’s a colossal heist.  Here’s a taste. In the past three years I’ve stayed 49 free nights in hotels.  I flew my family of six to Panama for $261 out-of-pocket.  My wife and I just returned from a 2-week trip to Italy that we booked for 40,000 points and $81 each. I could go on and on, but you’re catching the vision.

You see, most people think they’re already playing the frequent flyer mile game… but they aren’t even in the stadium.  There is a world of travel-hacking out there that would astonish you… and the fact that you have an Alaskan Airlines credit card is only getting you started. There are people like me who are hoarding loyalty points aggressively (chubby-kid-under-the-piñata style) and I want to invite you to become one of them.

Here’s my Five Finger Formula:

1. Understand the Programs

Civita BagnoregioThe first key to taking advantage of loyalty programs is, of course, to understand them. It’s not nearly as intimidating as you’d think.  To begin, know that there are essentially three forms of travel rewards you can accrue:

  1. Airline Miles: You probably belong to at least one of these programs – Delta Skymiles, American AAdvantage, Southwest Rapid Rewards.  These are the most visible of all loyalty points and they’re a key to making free-travel happen.
  2. Hotel Points: Similarly, hotel chains offer loyalty programs that usually span a few different brands.  Ones that may be familiar might include the Marriott Rewards program or Hilton HHonors.
  3. Bank Points: These are generally deeper in the shadows, but they are supremely powerful because often they can be transferred to various other programs or spent like cash.  Examples include American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Barclaycard Arrival Points.

Now that you know that there are programs in each of these categories, consider that you can obtain points a few different ways:

  1. Direct Usage: Airlines usually give you miles for every mile you’ve flown and hotels give points based on the number of dollars spent.  This is a painfully slow way to accumulate points.  If you consider that a domestic flight is typically 25k points and the US is about 3,000 miles wide, you’d need to do at least 4-5 RT flights from coast to coast in order to have enough for a free flight.
  2. Per Dollar Spending on Credit Cards: If you have a business that is heavy on inventory or that makes other large-dollar purchases that you can pay with a credit card, this is a great way to build points, yet most of us are not that fortunate.  I find that I can spend about $1000-$1500 per month in everyday expenses, also making the accrual to free-travel levels achingly sluggish.
  3. Upfront Bonuses from Credit Cards: For me this has been the rainmaker.  In the past 3 years, between my wife and I, we’ve applied for 34 credit cards and racked up more than 2,200,000 loyalty points across a number of platforms.  This is not for everyone as it does require discipline, but it is so insanely worth it.
  4. Promotions: Loyalty programs are about creating… you guessed it… loyalty.  What they want to see is you look to their brand first when making travel plans, and they get that by helping you love what they offer.  Often programs will run special programs to bump your balances.  You need to know about these.
  5. Transfers: Some programs like the Starwood Preferred Guest will even allow for specific transfers, but usually these come from the bank points we mentioned above.  It’s especially nice to make transfers when they’re offering multiplier bonuses.
  6. Buying Points: I almost didn’t include this because more often than not, it’s not a plausible thing to do, but every once in a while, they make it worth it.

2. Sign Up for Them

El valle beach Dominican RepublicYou don’t need to go out and sign up for a bunch of credit cards right away, but there is no harm in enrolling in the loyalty programs for airlines and hotels.

Do yourself a favor and create a single username and complex password that you’ll use to register for all of the programs.  Email yourself the account numbers once you’ve registered and keep them in a special email folder.  By doing this you’ll also be piped into special promotions they’ll email from time to time.

Also, this way you’ll always be ready in case you happen to fly on an airline you don’t normally use or stay in a hotel you weren’t a member of. Commit that you won’t allow opportunities to fall by the wayside.  I have friends who are crazy about travel and yet somehow they allowed 17,000 miles to go uncaptured after flying to China without registering for a program. [gagging sound]  Don’t do that to yourself.

Also, create a stream of ongoing points and miles education by subscribing to some blogs. Obviously we’d welcome your subscription to WorldWanderlusting.com and we’d urge you to check out MillionMileSecrets.com and the forums at Flyertalk.com. This way you’ll always be aware of what’s happening in the Miles and Points world.

3. Get Some Points Coming

St Pete beach paddleboard

Maybe you’ve already got some built up… perfect, that’s a good start, but good is an impediment to great.  I want you to get a taste of what it feels like to be empowered by an awardwallet that is brimming with opportunity.

My favorite “getting started” strategy right now is to begin piling up points with the Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard.  It’s super simple to redeem the points – just reimburse yourself for travel purchases. The up front bonus is healthy – you get $440 in free travel after spending $1000.

Aside from that, make a determination about which programs best suit you.  If you fly Southwest Airlines often, search out some ways to pile up Southwest Rapid Rewards.  If you love staying in Starwood Hotels, get the Starwood card that offers a bonus of enough points to stay as many as 8 nights in Category 2 hotels after meeting the minimum spending requirement.

4. Know How to Value Them

Ireland

This is easily the most challenging part – travel points are currency, and as such, their value is variable. The most confusing element for people is the concept of “miles.”  They’re referred to as such because historically airline miles have been accrued on a “miles-flown” basis. But with most programs redemption has little to do with distance flown. Because I always think in terms of maximum value, these figures are for the lowest possible redemption for each program.  You can pay much more in points than this, but these are baseline figures for the lowest amount you can get away with.

Here’s how redemption breaks out for most airlines:

  1. Domestic flights are generally 25k points on the major carriers.  The exceptions are Southwest, whose redemption is directly relative to the cost of the flight (~70 Rapid Reward points per dollar on Wanna-get-away fares), and British Airways which does consider the length of your flight in valuing redemption (making it an incredibly cheap way to book short flights.
  2. Central America/Caribbean/and Hawaii flights are 30-40k. Availability for these is best on American, Frontier, and US Airways.
  3. Europe and South America run between 40-60k. I think the greatest value in all of frequent flyerdom is the 40k redemption to Europe on American between Oct 15 and May 15th. Getting $1300 flights for 40k miles is like an ultimate clearance sale. American Airlines is also an incredible value to South America, sometimes even offering flights for 30k points.
  4. SE Asia, Africa, Australia, and everything else are 60-100k. I like United for these kinds of flights. Delta works, too, but availability is scarce.

You can research each program on their individual websites, but we consolidated the links in our Using Airlines Miles page.

But getting free flights is just the cake. Free hotels? Now that’s the icing. The variance on hotel points is far greater, so it’s nearly impossible to create a value system that runs across systems.

The first thing you need to understand about hotel points is that all hotel chains divide their hotel properties into categories.  The higher the category, the more points they call for. In most cases, Category 1 hotels are very few and far between.  I always like to look at programs in terms of how many points it takes to redeem for a Category 2 hotel – that gives you a good baseline value to compare across the board.

Approximate points required for 1 night in a Category 2 hotel:

  1. Marriott Rewards 10k -Obviously there are an abundance of Marriott hotels across the globe.  The best finds for category 2 hotels are right here in the US and in Spain, for whatever reason.
  2. Starwood Preferred Guest 3-4k (Sheraton, Westin, Aloft) – I used a few of these hotels in Italy and there are some good ones in popular vacation destinations in the US as well.
  3. Club Carlson 15k (Country Inn & Suites, Radisson) – This is my favorite program right now, especially because having the card they offer equates to a “book one, get one free” deal that really stretches the points. There are super nice category 2 hotels all over England and in a number of countries in Central and South America.
  4. Hilton 12.5k (Hampton, Doubletree) -I feel like this is the most overvalued chain, charging a lot of points that are tough to accrue for hotels that aren’t all that great.
  5. Priority Club 15k (Holiday Inn, Candlewood) – You can search out category 2 hotels, but the best way to use these points is on their Point Breaks hotels that allow you to stay for only 5k a night.
  6. Choice Hotels 8k (Comfort Inn, Quality Inn) – This is a great option for free stays in good locations in large cities that usually require far more points from other programs – examples are Paris, Rome, London, Frankfurt, etc.

Now, you’ve got a stash of hotel and airline points that you’re greedily counting like Scrooge McDuck.  All you need is a way to tie it all together – is it too much to ask for free car rentals and cruises too? No, it’s not, in fact.  You can pull this off with Bank Point programs that have a portal that allows you to book these things for free, or that provide reimbursement for travel purchases.  In many cases you can also transfer these points to hotel or airline programs to top off your accounts when you need a little boost.

Here are the major bank point programs:

  1. Barclaycard Arrival Points – I lead with this one because I love how flexible it is and how simple the earning capacity is.  You earn 2 points for every dollar you spend and a 10% point kickback when you reimburse yourself for travel purchases.  It equates to 2.2% cash back for travel, and that just doesn’t get beat.
  2. Chase Ultimate Rewards – This is another solid program with an option to use the points as cash at a 1.25 ratio.  You can also transfer to a lot of other programs.  There are a few different cards that you can use to pile up this kind of points.
  3. American Express Membership Reward Points – AMEX controls the market on business spending, so there are a lot of people with hundreds of thousands of these.  I’d much prefer to have the others, though.
  4. Capital One Venture Points – Also a travel reimbursement program, this one is good, but it has been a long time since there have been big up front bonuses to lure me in.

Overall, the points are ultimately worth to you what you value them for.  If you never want to go on a cruise, maybe the Barclaycard Arrival points aren’t all that great for you.  If you stay with friends or rent vacation homes, maybe you’re better off to focus on airline miles over hotel points. The important piece is that you know what you want and go get them.

5. Know How to Redeem Them

IMG_0499All this is for naught if you can’t figure out how to use these points you’ve been gathering. There’s always the good old fashioned way of calling in, but unless your a pro at interpreting broken English and waiting on hold excites you, you’re going to want to book online.

I keep track of all my points in various programs with www.AwardWallet.com – it’s a handy tool that keeps me organized and feeds my wanderlust when I need a pick-me-up.

Every program has an online portal and booking with points is not much different from normal reservations.

We’ve done a number of instructional videos on our Youtube Channel, but fiddling around with it yourself is really the best way to get it accomplished.

When booking the most important rule is to be flexible. This is the real secret to using loyalty points efficiently.  I always tell people, “If you want to use frequent flyer miles to go to Hawaii from December 23 to Jan 2nd and stay at a specific hotel, there’s a chance you could do it, but it’s going to completely drain you. If you want to go to someplace with a nice beach in the wintertime and stay in a clean hotel, you will be amazed by how much you can do with how little.”

Travel (real travel, as in, going places that are not occupied by cartoon characters) is about experiences.  It’s about learning and living and loving.  It’s about adventure and risk and excitement… and you don’t get any of that if you aren’t willing to break out of your comfort zone.

Your frequent flyer adventures will be so much cheaper, so many more, and so much more memorable if you’ll be willing to take what opportunities present themselves, rather than prescribing a necessary plan that they must conform to.

Here’s an example:  Every quarter Priority Club releases their list of Point Breaks hotels – properties they let you stay at for 5,000 points/night.  Since I have 85k, I could stay in one of those puppies for as many as 17 nights.  Looking through the list I think, “Hmm…a Staybridge Suites in Valley Forge, PA… isn’t that where General George Washington knelt and said a humble prayer before leading the Continental Army to victory?” Guess who just booked a trip to Pennsylvania?

In Summary

As with any journey of a thousand miles, just as Lao-Tzu said, this one begins with a single step – a step in the direction of almost-free travel.  Commit now to do more than casually collect frequent flyer miles and points.  If you’re doing it right, it will feel like stealing – the exhilarating part, without the guilt.  Just like travel itself, it’s something you’ll never regret.

 

Posted in How to Wanderlust | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments