Month: May 2014

Who to follow: The Points Guy


In less than a month, I’m going to be winging my way from SFO to Frankfurt and on to Oslo in United BusinessFirst. For this I paid $39.40.  I doubt this would have been possible without everything that I learned on The Points Guy’s blog.

TPG

When I first started traveling, I never racked up many miles. When you’re flying on the absolutely-cheapest-most-restricted-airfare ever, one of the things you often sacrifice is the collection of frequent flyer miles. Either the fare is so cheap that the flight racks up no miles at all, or the earn rate on that partner airline you’re flying is only 25%-50% of the actual miles flown.

A few years ago however, I stumbled on this site and really started taking this idea seriously. There is a LOT of work involved in racking up miles via credit cards and shopping portals, etc., and I am by no means as into it as a lot of others (some people are really nuts about this stuff), but with a little planning and some focused card-shopping you can really reap some amazing benefits. There are two main caveats to this:

  • You need to have good credit to do this, but having multiple cards open does not affect your overall credit score as much as you’d think. There is a lot of explanation of how this works on The Points Guy, so I won’t go into it here.
  • You have to have your shit together enough to make sure you pay stuff on time. You don’t necessarily have to pay everything off every month, but you need to make sure that you pay the minimum at least so you don’t start racking up late fees and losing the miles you just earned and damaging your credit. So proceed with caution.

Pretty much everything you need to know about how to get started you can learn on The Points Guy’s site, but I wanted to highlight some things that were not obvious to me when I started doing this:

  • On lots of programs, buying a one-way award does not carry a penalty the way it often does when you’re buying an airfare. A one way fare is 1/2 the miles of a round trip. So you can fly to Europe on American, let’s say, and then fly back on United. Therefore you don’t need a kajillion miles on American, you can rack up 50K on each American and United, and hey you’re going to Europe.

Hawaii

  • Do not try to use miles for two things: going to Europe in Summer and Hawaii ever. Just don’t. Don’t even try. Everyone who says that they “can never use their miles” are trying to use them for these two things. Or they’re trying to use them on Delta. Hawaii is actually a great fare to purchase (especially if you can go off season), as you will rack up a lot of “butt in seat” miles that count towards elite status because it’s so far away. For Europe, it’s better to book awards off season, or into less popular European destinations (think Stockholm, not London).
  • Earning miles on credit cards almost never counts as “elite qualifying miles” – no matter how much you spend, you’re not going to buy your way to Premier Platinum*. Therefore if you want those perks, you’re gonna have to pay for some flights sometimes.
  • Don’t hoard miles. This is crucial. Hoard miles, and your life will be a litany of woe and regret. The airlines, especially in the last few years, have devalued their programs quite a bit, and all of a sudden with little to no warning those 100K miles you were saving up for a round the world trip… well you’re gonna need twice that now so you’d better figure out plan B.

All aboard

  • Pick one main plan to earn on. It’s best to base this on whatever hub airport is near you. If you’re lucky enough to live near a big airport that serves as hub for more than one airline, then you have more flexibility. United is credited with having the plan where it’s easiest to use your miles, and in my experience this is true. They have a lot of partners and therefore can get you almost anywhere on the globe, sometimes for just 40K miles one way.
  • You can use miles for tickets for family. Therefore, you can use miles to get Mom to visit you, not just for you to go visit her. I’ve flown my brother out to San Francisco several times this way over the years.

Most people who really try to earn a lot of miles use them only for big-ticket items like First or Business class fares. But if you have family and friends across the country, don’t discount using your miles for visits home. Smaller, less trafficked airports often have award seats available, and it’s nice to be able to plan trips last minute for little to no money out of pocket.

*There are some cards with very large annual fees that do accrue elite qualifying miles, but the fees are way too rich for my blood.

Poll: Help me pick which images to submit to the 2014 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest, part 2

In our last poll, you helped me pick which images from my recent Antarctica trip to include. In this installment, we’re looking at images from 2013 and 2012 (you can submit images up to two years old). So let’s have at it!

 

 

As always, if you have any write-in candidates, please let me know in the comments!

 

 

Poll: Help me pick which images to submit to the 2014 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest, part 1

Which ones should I pick? Click on any of the images above to open the gallery.

I’d like to submit three images from this trip, plus a few others from other trips as well (to come in a later post). I’d like to submit a total of 5 images to the contest. The entry fee is $15 per image, so I can’t go too crazy.  If you have any write-in candidates, please let me know in the comments!

 

Thanks for your help.  Though I do have a lot of experience editing photos, sometimes it is hard to separate out one’s emotional connection to an image from it’s actual worth as a picture. Hearing others’ opinions is really helpful.

Travel insurance for $25? What’s the catch?

I’m suspicious. I’ll admit it. I’ve seen a lot of “revolutionary” apps and services that simply put don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They have a great idea for a service, but without any of the experience in running that kind of business to actually execute on it. That’s usually the “catch” — a startup has a great idea, and makes a pretty app, but then less than a year later they’re circling the deadpool. With a name like Berkshire Hathaway though, you expect that they might just know what they’re doing.

This company calls themselves Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, and they offer a product called AirCare. Simply put: give them $25, and they will insure your trip against common problems. This is not true travel insurance, as it doesn’t cover trip cancellation or medical evacuation, but it does offer protection for the groan-worthy inconveniences we often face while traveling: delays, lost luggage, and missed connections. Anyone who has spent 8 hours killing time in a terminal due to a long-delayed flight will understand. Why yes, $50 to pay for the fancy lounge with free snacks and drinks would be delightful, thanks!

AirCare

AirCare currently only covers flights within the US, but frankly anyone who travels overseas a lot will know that we’re the world leader in lost luggage and delays. Most other countries simply don’t have so many flights in the air at one time, and don’t run their schedules nearly so tightly, so a delays are not as common. They say that in some instances, you don’t even need to contact them to activate the coverage, as they’ll be notified automatically that your flight has been delayed, or you’ve been on the tarmac for a few hours.

I’ll admit, I was a little confused at first why Berkshire Hathaway was in the travel insurance business in the first place. I know it really only because it’s majority-owned by Warren Buffet, and  has stock that sells for multiple thousands of dollars per share. I know it’s a conglomeration of various different businesses,  but travel insurance seemed a little out of left field. It turns out, one of the subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway is a “Specialty Insurance” company, which earlier this year acquired a company called MyAssist that offered concierge travel services to lots of different companies, and was started by the man that started Travel Guard insurance. Ah, now this is starting to make more sense.

You can get the whole run down in this Skift article here. To use the service, simply download their app, sign up and pay the $25.

You can even insure a trip at the last minute, up to an hour before your flight. From their website, it looks like more comprehensive coverage is coming soon.

UPDATE 5-22-2014: Though you need to be licensed to sell insurance in each state separately, I would have thought the bigger states, like California, are ones that you would have sorted out before launching. Unfortunately, that is not the case.  I’ve asked them to give me a holler when they can in fact sell insurance in California.

“The List”: how are you going to remember to do it if you don’t write it down?

I refuse to use the term “bucket list”, which I’ve mentioned previously. Life List sounds more positive, and somehow more open-ended than a grim death-march of accomplishments. The whole idea of this is not a prosaic to-do list, but a reminder you can use to help shape your priorities as you flap around in the day to day minutiae of your life. Therefore the word “bucket” should have no part in it. Also, you can feel free to edit, amend and add to it at will. Your feelings change, and this should reflect that.

Writing them down is a way of committing to them. I tend to think of my list strictly in terms of places I want to go, though that is usually just shorthand for the things I expect to experience there. “Antarctica and South Georgia” is a location, but it’s also a package of experiences: crossing the Drake passage, hearing what a colony of thousands of king penguins sounds like, seeing six different species of penguins, getting close to a leopard seal, hearing a ship crack through ice floes, seeing innumerable glaciers, watching icebergs silently float by, crossing the Antarctic Circle. That is all pretty wordy, so “Antarctica and South Georgia” it is.

Iceland.

My list has remained pretty steady over the past few years, but it’s only recently that I’ve decided that I really need to attack it. I plan on being around for a long time, but honestly you just never know. There is really no sense putting things off.  So without further ado, and in no particular order, the list:

  • Machu Picchu , Peru – April 2000
  • Croatia – May 2005
  • Burma – Nov 2005
  • Angkor Thom, Cambodia – Nov 2007
  • Antarctica and South Georgia– Feb 2014
  • Iceland – July 2013
  • Rajasthan, India – Nov 2012
  • (Back to) Burma – scheduled, November 2014
  • Polar Bears – scheduled, June 2014
  • Safari in Africa (Tanzania? South Africa?) – planning on 2015
  • North Korea
  • Bhutan
  • Namibia
  • Morocco
  • Fuck yeah Madagascar!
  • The insane landscape of the Faeroe Islands
  • Seeing TIGERS in the wild (India)
  • Daintree National Park in Queensland, Australia
  • Peruvian Amazon
  • Guilin, China
  • Sri Lanka
  • Northern India- Ladakh, Kashmir

Of course, the list of places I want to go is much longer, but these are really the top of that list, the “must do” locations.

Do you have a list? What’s on it? Do you need some peer pressure to help you get started? I haven’t used this, but I’m interested in the idea behind Go Mighty. It’s probably worth checking out if you’ve never done this before and need a bit more inspiration. There’s some great tips in there too. Just stop putting it off and get to work.

Finding an African Safari

“What do you mean you haven’t been to Africa?!” For some reason, people are always surprised to find out that I have not been to Africa yet. I sort of see their point — for most people Antarctica is the last continent for them to visit. While I was on my way down to Ushuaia to the jumping off point  for that trip an important fact occurred to me: Antarctica is closer. Well, Ushuaia is. From where I am on the West Coast of the US, going to Eastern or Southern Africa requires flying to Europe (10+ hrs), then another 8-12 to get to Africa. Ushuaia was only 2/3rds that distance. That’s my excuse anyway.

Going on a safari in southern or eastern Africa has been on “The List” for quite a while. I decided that 2015 will be the year. A friend I met while traveling is interested in going as well, so I’ve started doing some research.

 

travel brochures

At this point I’m fairly open about where to go: Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, South Africa — any of them could work, though each place offers pluses and minuses. I’ve been reading a bit about safaris online, and there are a few things that have come to the forefront:

If you’re into photography there are really two crucial pieces of information:

  • How many people will be in each vehicle
  • Do you get an extra luggage allowance

You may have noticed that neither of those things has anything to do with the parks you visit, the accommodation, the outfitter, the food. But they are probably the two things that could potentially frustrate the beejesus out of you if you don’t think a lot about them before booking. Special “Photo” safaris will only have 3 people per vehicle. You get a whole bench seat row all to yourself. Why does it matter? You can slide to either side of the land rover to get a picture of whatever animal is there outside the window. You don’t have to worry about craning past someone or even completely missing something cause you can’t see past their big fat head. You will also likely head out earlier in the morning and then stay out later in the evening, which is when the animals are most active anyway. As a photographer, it just kills me to miss photo opportunities because of silly things like dinner.

And the extra luggage allowance? Pretty much any safari that flies from one location to another does so on very small planes. Small planes have very strict weight limits. Hence,  you only get a 25 lb. luggage allowance. This includes all your camera gear. Coming back from Antarctica the ticket desk at Lan weighed my carry-on (full of camera stuff), and that alone came in at 28 lbs. Whoops. Most photo safari outfitters understand this problem, and arrange for their travelers to get another ~15lbs of luggage –enough for a few pieces of clothing and a pair of lightweight hiking boots. Or they actually drive it to the next location by car, and it arrives a few hours after you do. Any lodges you stay at often have same-day laundry so you can really get by with 3 outfits.

Things to know:

  • Where you go should determine when you go (and vice versa): do you want to see the great migration in the Masai Mara? Do you want to see animals clustered around dry season watering holes in Botswana? Can you only go in midsummer school break? Each option triggers different choices. The seasons in that part of Africa are not analogous to the ones you find in most parts of the US, so you cannot really compare them. You have to research what it’s like at that place that time of year.
  • What’s the goal? Do you wan to see the big 5 and tick a few birds off your list? Is there one specific animal — like a leopard– you’re just dying to see? Different areas offer different concentrations of the main megafauna on offer, so this too can affect where you choose to go. Is it all about the photography? Oh boy, is there a lot to think of.
  • Then, we can’t not talk about cost. Safaris are expensive. Really expensive. For that money, what are you getting? You’re getting your own row of seats in a land rover (or at most, 6 people per vehicle, so everyone gets a window seat). Comfortable accommodation with an ensuite bathroom and electricity. Guides that are naturalists as well as trackers, who understand how to place the vehicle in the right spot for taking pictures and can tell you all about the life cycle of a lion. You’re getting safety, logistics that actually work and the ability to move between locations quickly and easily (by plane and not via a 12 hour ride on a bumpy road).

As I go about collecting information and learning about each of these things I’ll be posting my findings here.

To get you started, here are a few links:

Nathan Myhrvold used to be the CTO of Microsoft. I met him once because he had Galen Rowell do a private photo workshop for him – he’s obviously a very smart guy, and it’s interesting the way he’s gotten into all sorts of things from molecular gastronomy to photography since he’s left Microsoft. He wrote an article for The Luminous Landscape about the photo equipment considerations for safaris, and even if that’s not why you want to go, there is still a lot of other really good info in this article about different vehicles and ways to support your camera, and what it’s like to be on safari.

There are a few well-known photo safari outfitters, and a range of smaller players. Here are some of the most well known:

Joseph van Os

Thompson Safaris

Andy Biggs

I will continue to post follow-on articles about other safari operators and things I find out in my research.

 

 

Who to follow: Airfare Watchdog

George Hobica doesn’t know this, but he’s the reason I’ve been to Australia. A travel journalist by trade, he started Airfare Watchdog as a means to list deals from all airlines, not just the ones available via that booking service (something you might notice if you get deals emails from Orbitz or Kayak is that they don’t list smaller airlines like Southwest, just the big guys). Actual human beings look into the fares, and my favorite part– they actually post screenshots of the flights and days the deal is good for. If a fare is proving hard to book on an airline’s site, just call them up and feed the flight numbers and dates to the reservation agent, and they should be able to get it for you.

Several years ago, a tweet appeared in my stream:  San Francisco to Sydney, $700 RT. Wait, what? Nonstop? Tax included? In…. AUGUST?! This seemed impossible. I quickly navigated to  ITA Software’s site to check and see what day in August this fare was valid for. The answer I got: all of them. The entire month of August and part of September was available at this rate. Technically that is winter in the southern hemisphere, but “winter” in Sydney is like “winter” in LA — a high of 70F instead of 85F. A great time to visit.

Australia. NSW. Sydney. Luna Park amusement park. Colorful signs

Oh, you bet I booked that flight. I booked one for my brother too, after arranging to share the cost with my mother and sister in law as a birthday present to him. One does not pass up a cheap fare to Australia.

Airfare watchdog offers two really useful things for the aspiring traveler:

They regularly tweet out deals they find that are especially good — these are the things like that trip to Australia, or this current $500 deal to Stockholm:

Deal to Stockholm

 

I’ve booked several trips from fares I’ve seen in these tweets,  including my trip to Iceland last year ($770 RT- woot!).

Iceland.

You can also sign up for alert emails at Airfare Watchdog for your city, which cover international and domestic destinations. This is a great way to get a feel for what is and is not a good deal. A general rule of thumb is: if the airline says it’s a good deal, it isn’t. Their “fare sales” are often no lower than the usual discount you get from flying Tuesday or Wednesday. Keeping an eye on prices really helps you to know when to jump on a fare, as you can better gauge when it’s truly special, like $700 to Australia (commonly $1300-$1500). You may see from these emails that fares to New York are routinely sub- $350, so you don’t have to worry too much about passing one by — another one will come along.

The final bit of advice? When you see a great fare you have to book first, ask questions later. Sometimes these fares last only a few hours. To get them, you need to be able to commit. That said, several airlines now give you a chance to put fares on hold for 1-7 days for a nominal fee. If you need to check with work/a spouse/your bank account then that’s the way to lock in a fare and work out the details later.