October 23, 2014

Why you should be reminded about “mistake-fares”

Everyone’s had those days where they’re day-dreaming about a trip they can’t afford and they just wish to themselves that flight prices would magically drop and they could magically afford that trip to Milan, Italy or Kenya or wherever.

Well…I can’t tell you that magic is happening but I have honestly booked flights to Milan, Italy and Nairobi, Kenya for $300 or less each, roundtrip.

If you’re asking yourself, “Is this some kind of joke?  Is this a mistake?” then the answer is…well…one of those things is true.

I know I’ve blogged about this before, but you seriously need to be reminded about this. Because mistake fares are exactly the kinds of deals you daydream about.

Milan

What is a mistake fare?

Most basically, a mistake fare is any time there’s some kind of mistake in the process of pricing a ticket (or hotel room) online. Most often, this happens because there’s some kind of error in the process of programming that price. For instance, whoever is plugging in the formula for that price somehow misses plugging in the fuel portion of that price.

How cheap can these mistake-fares get?

These mistake-fares are all over the place in terms of price. We don’t tend to pay attention to them until their as low as $400 or less for an international ticket. Once there was even a “$0″ United fare that cost only $5 in airport taxes, but it wasn’t honored.

Which brings me to another important point…

Do these mistake-fares actually get honored?

The airline mistake fares almost always get honored. The $0 United example didn’t get honored because no one actually bought anything. But for the most part a mistake fare is going to be cheap enough to be a ridiculously good deal, but cost you enough for the airlines to make the decision to honor it.

For whatever reason, hotel mistake-fares on the other hand are not always honored. In this case, the hotel will generally reach out to contact you and inform you of the mistake and offer the chance to cancel.

How do you find these mistake-fares? 

There is only a little bit of “finding” involved in mistake-fares. For the most part, the best way to “find” mistake-fares is by connecting with other “travel-hackers” who might publish these mistake-fares on their social media. For instance, my husband and I try to share the mistake-fares we hear of on our Facebook page. Because this network of people is so big, and thanks to the forum “Flyertalk”, the word tends to spread.

However, like I said, there is still some “finding” involved.

Here’s what I mean. Because this pricing mistake is usually an error in how the price was code, it can take some trial and error to figure out what the mistake actually is.

For instance one person may be browsing “fill-in-the-blank-bookingservice.com” and stumble upon a ticket to Milan in February for only $150 roundtrip. The error is existing on fill-in-the-blank-bookingservice.com, so you’ll know right away that you need to be booking your ticket there. But maybe you aren’t free in February, so you try out June. No luck. Or maybe you’re not interested in Milan so you try Rome. No luck.

Many times these mistake-fares are somewhat specific and restrictive, but maybe less than you’d think.

In the example I just used with Milan, there were some people booking in other times of the year, but not all times of the year were revealing the mistaken price. Or, in the case of the Nairobi mistake-fare mentioned, some people were finding that mistaken price for other destinations, but not all destinations.

Finding the mistake-fare you want can take some playing around, but be careful. They don’t last long.

These mistake-fares are such a fine line between amazing and inconvenient, because not only do they tend to be specific, but they go quickly. So sometimes in the time it takes  you to find out if you can get the vacation time off, or in the time it takes you to call up a travel-buddy, the mistake gets fixed and it’s gone.

Because of this, figure out the cancellation policy right away. If the cancellation policy allows any decision-making time at all, then you can feel free to book a mistake-fare speculatively. Which is to say, you can book the first mistake-fare that catches your attention as possibly feasible, without worrying about working out the details ahead of time.

If there is any flexibility of cancellation at all, book first and work it out later.

Who are mistake-fares good for?

While this may sound complicated, it is perfect for anyone with a free spirit and a spontaneous nature. Or, for people who want to see the whole world. If you have one specific destination in mind for your next trip, and are uninterested in other destinations, then mistake-fares are not for you. But if you are always up for an adventure, and curious about travel of all kinds, then you may just find a mistake-fare fitting your next spontaneous travel needs.

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Category: Travel Bargains

October 9, 2014

Favorite cash-back card for travelers

The travel-hacking hobby is all about getting miles and points by signing up for credit cards that have good bonuses. Usually these are travel rewards cards put out by airlines or banks who allow transfers to airlines and hotels. For instance the Citi AAdvantage card which helps you earn American Airline miles or the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which helps you transfer to a number of travel programs.

While many are satisfied to spend on cash-back cards, 9 times out of 10 we travel-hackers will opt for the travel rewards cards mentioned above, confident that we can actually get more value out of miles than cash-back. But every now and again a cash-back card comes along that’s great for travelers and travel-hackers alike.

One such cash-back card is the Barclay Arrival Plus card. (Not to be confused with the other Barclay Arrival card.)

wallet

A bit about the card

Currently the Barclay Arrival Plus card is offering a 40,000 point bonus which you can receive after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days. This 40,000 bonus points will transfer into $400 worth of travel reimbursement. This includes hotel charges, airline charges, and rental car charges that exceed the minimum of $25.

You can also earn as you spend at a rate of 2 points per dollar spent.

Also note that after the first year, (which comes without a fee), the annual fee will be $89.

Why we recommend this card

While we definitely rely on frequent flyer miles and hotel points, there are some expenses we can’t cover with these currencies. Rental cars are a great example. But also many reward flights will come with a few residual charges, even if you’re choosing a low-surcharge mileage program like American Airlines and United Airlines. For instance airport taxes and the like. These are charges you can cover with the Barclay Arrival Plus points.

We just experimented with an entirely free trip to South America; a trip whose travel costs would equal zero. Now, keep in mind that for this trip we considered meal expenses to be unavoidable expenses that we would have whether we were at home buying groceries our out on the road buying food from food stands, so those expenses were not included in the $0 calculation.

This experiment would have been impossible without the opportunity to use the Barclay Arrival Plus points for expenses not covered by frequent flyer miles and hotel points. While we did still have a few expenses we hadn’t predicted, we quite nearly made it.

Being smart about your credit card strategies

I must make a disclaimer that is quite crucial in making any credit-card-related strategies successful. Perhaps it goes without saying, but these credit-card strategies are not worth it if you let the credit card get the best of you. the idea is to get the credit cards for their perks and make certain you can make on-time payments, and keep minimal balances on the card, ideally paying off the card before interest kicks in. If you already have a habit of treating your credit cards more like debit cards that you pay off in full on a regular basis, then the travel-hacking strategies are right for you. But if this will be a challenge for you, then it’s not worth the risk. Debt is a serious issue and should not be a part of the travel-hacking strategy.

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Category: Travel Bargains

August 30, 2014

Why We Buy Dumb Souvenirs

souvenirmasksHere’s a curious trivia tidbit from U.S. history: In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams took leave from their Europe-based diplomatic duties and traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the home of William Shakespeare. Not much was recorded of the occasion, but one fact of their pilgrimage to the Bard’s birthplace stands out: At some point during the tour, the two American statesmen brandished pocketknives, carved a few slivers from a wooden chair alleged to have been Shakespeare’s, and spirited them home as souvenirs.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on this incident and conclude that — in terms of travel protocol, at least — Jefferson and Adams were complete knuckleheads. The thing is, I haven’t seen any evidence to prove that, as world-wandering travelers, our quest for souvenirs has become any more logical or dignified in the ensuing 220 years.

I mention this because I recently traveled to Key West, where a popular section of Duval Street is crowded with souvenir boutiques. In a certain sense, this stretch of Duval felt a tad anachronistic, since — in the age of eBay and similar online shopping venues — you don’t have to travel to a place like Key West to load up on painted seashells and exotic cigars. What struck me more, however, was not the items typically associated with Florida, but the bizarre overabundance of souvenir t-shirts, which said things like “Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes,” or “Farting is my way of saying I (heart) you.”

In one sense, it seems ridiculous that anyone would travel to Key West and buy a t-shirt that has nothing whatsoever to do with south Florida (“I’m not a bitch, I’m ‘Miss Bitch’ to you”). Still, bringing home a tacky keepsake from Key West can serve as a sort of travel credential — an existential referent that proves you went to south Florida and got drunk enough to exercise bad judgment. Similarly, for Jefferson and Adams, those Stratfordian wood-shavings were tangible proof that they had journeyed across England and touched a chair that had, presumably, once cradled Shakespeare’s butt.

Indeed, in most cases it would appear that souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. In Egypt, for example, generations of tourists have obsessively sought relics that remind them of the Pharaonic landscape they’ve seen in books and movies. Hence, all the major Egyptian tourist sites do a steady trade in fake papyrus, Great Pyramid paperweights, and alabaster Nefertiti statues — none of which would be found in the home of any self-respecting Egyptian. Similarly, in Calcutta’s New Market, an unspoken caste system exists between Indian shoppers and souvenir-seeking tourists. The travelers instinctively gravitate into boutiques that sell carved elephant figurines and decorative jars of saffron, while the Indians shop for rubber bathmats, stainless steel pans, and digital calculators. The implication here, of course, is that buying an electric blender might be more representative of day-to-day Calcutta life than buying Kashmiri silk (though, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room).

Although it may be tempting to blame this discrepancy on modern misconceptions, the tourist quest for souvenirs has always been somewhat skewed. In ancient Anatolia, locals hawked supposed Trojan War relics to credulous Greek travelers, and excavations in Italy have suggested that ancient Romans had a penchant for cheap glass vials painted with pictures of contemporary tourist attractions (none of these have been proven to be snow-globes, to my knowledge, but it’s easy to draw a parallel). In medieval times, Christian pilgrims wandering the Holy Land proved to be among the most gullible relic-hunters in human history, as they carted home enough crowns of thorns, Holy Grails, and apostle-femurs to stock a macabre, New Testament-themed WalMart.

If any world culture deserves mention for its souvenir idiosyncrasies, however, it is the Japanese, who have long considered the giving of gifts to be an essential social ritual. Since taking a leisured journey carries a cultural sense of shame at leaving one’s home duties, Japanese travelers reflexively seek out omiyage — small gifts that will be presented as an act of respect to the family members and coworkers they left behind. So common is this practice that some Japanese airports stock souvenirs from around the world in an effort to save travelers the hassle of finding them in their actual destinations. Hence, a given Japanese girl’s bedroom might feature a Mickey Mouse clock, a miniature Eiffel Tower, and a carved Balinese frog mask — each of which represent her father’s past trips to Florida, Paris, and Indonesia, and all which were purchased at Narita Airport.

In pointing out the global-historical foibles of souvenir-seekers, I don’t mean to position myself above the madness. Like so many tourists before me, I, too, have been known to display weakness in the face of Peruvian weavings, Latvian amber, and Korean lacquer-ware.

I’ve found, however, that bringing these items home and putting them on display has taught me an interesting lesson. Whenever I stroll into my office and gaze at my Mongolian masks and Syrian worry-beads, I find that they don’t evoke my Asian travel memories quite so effectively as the beat-up, navy-blue “Bruin Track & Field” t-shirt I wore in both countries.

Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense: When I bought the masks and the worry-beads, I was shopping — but when I wore the t-shirt I was hiking across the steppes beyond Ulan Bator, or exploring the mountaintop monasteries outside of Damascus.

Indeed, as novelist Anatole France once noted, I’d wager that “it is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.”

In Stratford-upon-Avon, at least, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have done well to heed this advice.

Tip sheet: Souvenir strategies that can reduce the knucklehead factor
1) Don’t confine the notion of what a souvenir is.

Souvenir boutiques will be found in abundance in any major tourist area, but that doesn’t mean you must confine your souvenir-hunt to specialty shops. Any token of your trip — from restaurant placemats, to pressed leaves, to local candy — can serve as a personal keepsake. If seeking gifts for loved ones at home, check department stores and supermarkets before you hit the souvenir shop — odds are you’ll find something cheaper (and just as authentic) in these types of places.

2) Save souvenir shopping until the end of the journey.

Let a souvenir be a souvenir — a keepsake of experience — and don’t go off shopping for knickknacks before you’ve had some real travel adventures. Not only will this give you a social context for your destination before you start commemorating it with collectables, but it will also save you the hassle of dragging this newfound loot around with you as your journey progresses. An added bonus is that, as a shopper, you will have a better sense for the price and quality of your souvenirs once you’ve traveled and made some comparisons.

3) The experience is more important than the keepsake.

In the end, shopping anywhere is still just shopping. Don’t let the hunt for souvenirs get in the way of amazing travel experiences.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 9, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Money Management, Travel Bargains, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

May 22, 2014

How bank points can be the best for free flights.

Most people are somewhat familiar with the concept of collecting frequent flier miles. My husband and I have built our whole travel strategy around frequent flier miles in fact, but there’s another travel reward currency with huge benefits once you understand how it works.

Bank points.  Specifically I’m referring to “American Express Membership Rewards” and “Chase Ultimate Rewards.”

First lets go over what these points are and how to earn them.  Then, we’ll take a look at why they’re beneficial to have around.

chaseoptions

What are Amex points and Chase points?

When you see an airline card that earns miles, you know that the airline has partnered with a bank to have a credit card that earns towards their own frequent flier program. However, the banks ant in on the loyalty program system too. So, like many other banks, American Express and Chase bank have both developed their own rewards system with credit cards that earn points towards that system.

These points are extremely versatile. You can redeem them for cash if you’d like, or surf through the list of other options, including both travel that can be booked directly with points, or travel that can be booked by transferring directly into a frequent flier or hotel program. The latter is greatly recommended over booking travel directly with your points, but we’ll discuss that in a bit.

How do you earn these points?

These points can be earned with American Express cards or Chase cards that aren’t partnered with some other program as mentioned above. For instance, American Express has partnered with the hotel group “Starwood” to create a credit card for their loyalty program. That card will not earn you Amex points, it will earn Starwood Preferred Guest Points. But the American Express Gold card and the American Express Gold card are both cards that are not partnered with a different program and will earn you Amex points.

Similarly, the Chase Freedom card, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and Chase Ink Bold or Ink Plus are all cards that will earn you Chase points rather than the points of a program they’ve partnered with.

Why these points are beneficial?

These points are beneficial purely for their ability to transfer to a variety of airline or hotel programs. Find a list of Chase transfer partners here. Also find a list of American Express transfer partners here. I’m going to emphasize that again: the benefit is in transferring. This is not to be confused with booking travel directly with your points, as you’ll get much less travel for your points that way. Think of it like purchasing something through a retailer versus wholesale.

Think about it. If you have American Airline miles, that means you can use those miles to fly with American Airlines or any of their alliance partners. That gives you quite a few options, yes, but if you have bank points, you can transfer your points to an array of airlines representing any alliance, or transfer them into a hotel program. This allows you to be very flexible based on your needs. For instance sometimes we’ll be arriving someplace with no plan for accommodations and no hotel points at our exposure. In that kind of situation, we could always transfer Amex points to Hilton points.

Or, as we approach our travel plans, we can compare prices between the different mileage programs and transfer our points only once we’ve decided whose mileage program offers the cheapest options to our travel destination. If we compare prices in points and see that United has the cheapest reward flight to Asia, then we can transfer our Chase points to United.

Transferring points.

The main thing to remember is that your points need to be transferred into the mileage program (or hotel program) of your choice for you to get the best value, (rather than keeping them as Amex or Chase points and booking travel directly that way.) I know I’ve already said this, but it’s one of the easiest ways to get more value out of your earnings.

The steps for transferring are fairly simple.

American Express Membership Rewards Points transfer process:

1.) First sign into your American Express online account here.

2.) Click on “Rewards” at the top and then select “Use Points” on the drop-down.

3.) Click on the “Travel” tab.

4.) Select the “Transfer Points” option.

5.) There, you will see a “Hotels” tab and an “Airlines” tab.  Select the one which applies and click on the icon of your transfer choice. From there, you will be prompted for the rest of the transfer.

Chase Ultimate Rewards Points transfer process:

1.) Sign into your Chase Ultimate Rewards account here.

Now…here’s where it gets a little complicated, so I strongly recommend reading my post on the intricacies of Chase.  The basic thing to note here is that only certain Chase cards allow points-transfer as a benefit of the card.  This means that even if you have a card that earns Chase points, you won’t be able to transfer them until you have one of the following cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Bold, or Chase Ink Plus.

2.) Provided you have one of the cards listed above, the transfer process is very simple.  At the top of your account page you will see a “Point Transfer” tab.

3.) You will see two options, one for hotels and one for airlines. Just as with Amex points, you will see a display of icons.  Select the one you want and follow the prompts.

 

So what are the recommended transfers?

With Amex pints we will usually transfer to one of the following: Air Canada, British Airways or ANA.  We base this decision on availability as well as whose flights seem to produce the least amount of fuel surcharges.

With Chase points we almost always transfer to United miles.  This is because United miles have pretty much no fuel surcharges.  This means that your “free flight” won’t have a surprise $200 fee tacked onto it. Not to mention United’s mileage program offers fairly good award prices for economy and also allows one free stopover for any roundtrip, international award flight. We love United and thus, we love Chase points too.

Let’s recap the basic points:

1.) The bank points especially worth noting are American Express Membership Rewards points (Amex points) and Chase Ultimate Rewards points (Chase points.)

2.) Bank points are useful for allowing flexibility.  You can earn knowing that you’ll later be able to transfer based on your travel needs.

3.) Transferring points will give you a better value than booking directly with your points, though your online account allows you to do either.

 

Again, for a more in-depth look at Chase points specifically (our favorite) I recommend checking out this post on getting to know Chase.

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Category: Air Travel, Money Management, Travel Bargains

March 27, 2014

7 things that will help you understand using travel rewards cards to your advantage

creditcardstack

From the very beginning of our travel together, my husband and I have done all of our international flying with frequent-flier-miles. With Asia and Easter Island both on our itinerary for our first gap-year of travel, crossing the distances we had in mind would have seemed financially impossible for us without frequent flier miles.

Perhaps there’s a misconception out there that you must first pay for a significant amount of flying before you can accumulate enough frequent-flier-miles for a free international flight. That may be true when using the traditional approach to earning miles. But there is another strategy that has become quite popular for earning miles that requires no flying at all.

Credit cards.

There are dozens of them. And of course, it can get quite confusing. So I’ve put together a list of 10 things to help you understand travel rewards cards, and therefore, use them to help you with your own travel goals.

 

1.) Not all cards advertised as “travel rewards cards” will earn you frequent flier miles.

There are basically four types of currencies you can earn with travel rewards cards: 1) frequent flier miles with a mileage program, 2) hotel points with a hotel rewards program, 3) points that can be transferred into frequent flier miles or hotel points, and 4) points that can be used to reimburse money you spend on travel.

The latter can be good for covering what frequent flier miles cannot, but won’t be as significant in earning you a free international flight.

 

2.) Just because a card is offering a bonus, it doesn’t mean it’s a good bonus.

All the major travel credit cards advertise mile or point bonuses. This is the main appeal in many cases however, it’s worthwhile to do some research when you see a card offering a bonus. For instance as mentioned above, there are various currencies in the travel rewards card world. Find out what an advertised bonus could realistically translate to in terms of travel.

Even once you have acquainted yourself with the bonus’ currency, it’s also good to know the difference between a good bonus and a weak bonus. At least when it comes to miles, hotel points, or points that can be transferred into miles, we generally tell people that 50,000 points is a good bonus.

 

3.) There are often requirements you must reach before you earn the bonus.

Occasionally a card will offer a bonus that you can receive as soon as you sign up or make your first purchase. But more often there is a spend-requirement you must reach first. Generally it’s set anywhere from $1,000-$10,000 spent within the first 3-6 months depending on the card.

Many cards offer bill-pay set-ups online to help you work towards that spend-requirement with your ordinary spending.

In the travel-hacking community however, it has become quite popular to use your credit card to purchase something that can easily be turned back into useable cash. Gift cards for example have paved the way for a cheap though admittedly complicated strategy for reaching spend requirements.

 

4.) Many cards also have an annual fee, though sometimes it’s waived for the first year.

It’s up to you how to handle this annual fee. Sometimes the card’s regular earnings from ordinary spending, annual gifts, or other card perks are enough for the annual fee to be worth it. That is up to you but you should understand that canceling a card after just a year can have an effect (albeit a fairly small one) on your credit score.

Your credit score takes your average length of history into account and having multiple 1-year accounts will lower that average. Because of this, we recommend having a few no annual fee cards that you will keep, even if you never use them. We also recommend that, if a person doesn’t feel they can keep up with the annual fee (or doesn’t wish to), they try having the card downgraded to a no-annual fee card after the first year.

 

5.) Collecting miles with credit-cards has a lot to do with credit score.

Most of the good travel cards require you to have at least a fair credit-score for approval. You can get a free credit score estimate with sites like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma. Technically they are just estimates, but they tend to be pretty close to accurate.

 

6.) Having multiple credit cards can actually improve your credit score.

Credit score works a little differently than many people may assume. It is less a measure of your financial status, and more a measure of your ability to be responsible with debt. It’s all about debt management really.

Therefore, the more cards you are responsible with, the higher your score will be. We have tested this and seen it to be true, as have many others.

Of course, the most important point here is that being responsible with multiple cards has a good effect. Being irresponsible with multiple cards could be very dangerous.

You can read more about what responsible credit card use is in our post about how credit score and travel-hacking work.

 

7.) Applying for cards too closely together will prevent you from getting approved.

Applying for one card today and another one tomorrow will make you look desperate and will prevent you from getting approved for a card, even if your credit score is great. If there are multiple rewards cards you’re interested in, wait at least 3 months between each application. Some suggest you don’t need to wait that long, but this is the safer strategy.

 

Credit cards are a huge part of the travel-hacking budget strategy and these 7 things will give you a place to start your research.  Ultimately, the idea here is that rewards cards are helping you and that you’re in control of them, not the other way around.  While trial and error is certainly a part of everything in life, especially when it comes to credit and credit cards, it’s good to be as informed as possible from the beginning.

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Category: Air Travel, Travel Bargains

July 19, 2013

When You’re Out of Loot in London

Let’s face it: It’s summer and you’re broke. If you’ve somehow managed to make it to Europe and have some money for food and shelter, you might not have cash for much else. Trust me, I’ve been there. Everyone knows activities in places like London, for example, is pricey. But it’s important to know that there are several fun and interesting things to see and do that are completely free.

London Bridge is always free, and always majestic.

London Bridge is always free, and always majestic.

With that in mind, this is the first in a series focusing on free sights and activities in some of Europe’s best cities.

Taking the London example, here’s just a short list of free activities that give you a good taste of that amazing city:

-The National Gallery is free, although that may surprise many. Yes, one of the world’s great art museums—hosting works by world-renown masters—does not charge for entry.

-Piccadilly Circus, the gateway to the West End, is a colorful sea of people—especially when the sun goes down and the neon lights wash over the surroundings. Great people watching.

-The Changing of the Guard at the palace is always a sight to behold. The military pomp has been tradition for centuries, epitomizing military precision.

-Regent’s Park includes the city zoo and a wildlife garden. An oasis of leafy tranquility in the heart of the metropolis.

-There’s also St. James’s Park, ringed by some of London’s biggest landmarks (Buckingham Palace and Whitehall) featuring gorgeous greens and a soothing lake when the Tube and the crowds drive you mad.

St. James's Park

St. James’s Park

-Speaking of great urban parks, no list would be complete without mention of Hyde Park. Lots of open air festivals and concerts are held here, especially in summer. Amble on over and enjoy.

-The Tate Modern (free except for certain special exhibitions) hosts a dazzling array of modern art, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Tate Modern

Tate Modern

-The rightfully revered British Museum is another world-class treasure trove of history that deserves your time. It’s a jaw-droppingly thorough survey of human civilization.

British Museum

British Museum

Of course, the best parts of travel, meeting the people and sampling the culture, are always free—but having a list of other free stuff to do certainly helps.

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, On The Road, Travel Bargains, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Life

January 29, 2013

Vagabonding South Sulawesi, Indonesia

If you’re vagabonding in SEA and trying to get off the beaten track the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is a great place to do just that, especially during the low season of Dec. – Feb. There is a reasonably reliable network of bus service around the island but the roads are terrible and the rate of bus crashes seems (based on observation) higher than average for Asia. Not surprising, given the state of the roadways. If you can rent your own car, it’s a ticket to freedom on the island, but be prepared for people to be shocked that you’re driving yourself. Apparently everyone hires a driver or takes busses!

If you are looking for an excellent guide or arranger of further guides, Dodo Mursalim, in Makassar is your man. He’ll pick you up at the airport, deliver you at hellish hours, and even put you up in his house. He’s a wealth of information about Sulawesi and has uncanny connections all over the island. His email: donow77@hotmail.com

Rantepao is in the heart of the region of Tana Toraja, which should not be missed. Plan to stay several days  to a week, slow down, explore, and try to see a funeral. Nicholas Pabara is a fantastic guide, he asked me to share his phone number with fellow travelers: 082-192-183-677. Having a local to tell you the stories, explain the history and find the out of the way things that you won’t find on your own is priceless. You’ll definitely want him to help you place a bet at the cock fights!

Bira is at the eastern tip of the northern arm of Sulawesi. It’s got a pleasant tourist slum with cheap accommodation, but if you head out of the tourist district to Bara Beach there are six little bungalows for rent on a deserted beach that are a little slice of heaven. A boat can be arranged to the facing island where the diving is world class. This is the place to kick back and relax for a few days away from the hustle of Indonesian cities.

Samalona island is listed as an afternoon trip from Makassar in some of the guides. A better bet would be to head out for three or four days and stay in the home of one of the seven families (all inter-related) who live on the island. To get there, take a blue bus to Fort Rotterdam, cross the street to the waterfront and the boatmen will find you. There is no electricity (a generator will be turned on in the evening) no running water, no shower, and no hot water, but it’s a welcome respite from the bustle of Indonesian cities and the snorkeling is pretty good. You’ll find the islanders welcoming, generous, and their fresh from the ocean cooking worth staying an extra day for. If you have an instrument, bring it, music is welcome in the evenings. It costs about $20 USD a night for lodging and three square; can’t beat that.

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Category: Asia, Travel Bargains

November 19, 2012

Bargaining in Asia: tips and tricks

A fabric vendor and traveler at a market in Luang Prabang, Laos.

A fabric vendor and traveler at a market in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo: Joaquin Uy / Flickr

It’s a well-worn practice the world over: customers and vendors talking price. CNNGo tackled this issue in a post titled How to bargain: the ultimate guide to scoring a deal in the markets of Asia.

Many of the tips will be familiar to experienced vagabonders: shop around, be polite, and be ready to walk away. What makes the article special is the little details about particular destinations. Some examples:

Have you negotiated over a purchase at a market? Please share your stories in the comments.

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Category: Money Management, Notes from the collective travel mind, Travel Bargains

August 16, 2012

Loco2:europe by train

Loco2 launched not long ago. A site dedicated to train travel throughout Europe. I’ve exchanged emails with its founder, and “the team” has the vision of creating a source of online train booking “as easy as flight booking”—it appears to be well on its way. The site has a video short that explains how to find, book and share itinerary with friends. It also features a blog that covers things like watching the Tour de France by train, photography by Steve McCurry, and interviews with The Man in Seat61.
If you are not privy to that last mention; the man in Seat61 site was created by former railway engineer Mark Smith in 2001, and received many cudos in 2007 (including a blog post on this site.) That site alone is a plethora of information about world-wide train travel.

survey results image credit loco2.com

However, it doesn’t have the unique Engine Room forum which Loco2 has created to offer advice broken down easily by country with the latest information about areas. If you’re considering Europe by train; check into this site. If you’ve travelled the area recently and have suggestions, they are open to building a better, more useful community…

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Category: Destinations, Europe, Travel Bargains

February 28, 2012

Taking travel home with you: buying souvenirs abroad

Sapa, Vietnam

Vagabond travel is about the experience. It’s less focused on the “stuff” you bring and buy, and more about the freedoms as an open minded traveler with a light backpack. Rolf shows us the pros of traveling stuff-less in his Round The World challenge trip, but if you know what you’re looking for and have some extra space, souvenir hunting abroad can lead to some extraordinary experiences.

I’m not talking about toting Portuguese ceramics around Europe or filling your backpack with I Love (insert city name) t-shirts at every stop. I’m talking about small pieces that will always remind you of your time away from home. In many places, you can get a beautiful local print for less than what a mass produced picture would cost at a Linens ‘N Things.

Here are some rules I like to live by on the road:

1.) Even if you don’t buy, interacting with shopkeepers is a great way to glimpse into local life. Window shopping is free, and can lead to some hysterical experiences, seen here as Rolf explores a market in Morocco on his No Baggage Challenge.

2.) Research what kinds of things your destination has to offer. Know the price range for a Nepali cashmere scarf before hitting the streets, and also look into potential scams. Bangkok is known for luring tourists to faux gem stores, charging customers competitive prices for lookalike gems.

3.) Analyze the quality of the item in question. Not only do most local vendors not have return policies, but you’ll likely be onto a new city or even home before you notice it’s cheaply made or broken.

Kathmandu storefront

4.) Look for fair trade shops when purchasing handicrafts, which ensure that the artists earn fair wages and work in good conditions. Friends International shop in Phnom Penh is one of my favorite examples.

5.) Watch out for breakables…If you’re browsing the Czech glass shops of Prague, don’t stand too close…If you break, you buy.

6.) It’s fun to say “I got this in Laos!” But make sure you’re buying for the right reasons. Do you love what you see? Is it unique to the region? Is it something that’s truly worth carrying in a backpack until you return home?

If room in my backpack permits, here are my favorite things to look for abroad:

Postcards and stationary: These are great reminders of world travel, and can also be shared with others! Each postcard or letter sent means less “stuff” in your backpack.

Handcrafted jewelry: I look for something that is unique, wearable and won’t break the bank. One of my favorite things is a small silver bracelet from the Black Hmong woman who walked with me for 5 hours while trekking in Sapa, Vietnam.

Handwoven crafts: Travels in South America and Southeast Asia have brought me to incredible villages where handwoven products often take weeks to make and cost less than 10 dollars.

Artwork: most small prints can lay flat in a suitcase or fit between a book, and can then be framed at home.

What do you think? Have you fallen into the tourist trap of useless “stuff?” Where have you gotten your favorite souvenirs? Do you have any tips for other travelers who are interested in picking up a souvenir or two?

unnecessary purchase...

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Category: General, Travel Bargains
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