travel strategy

How to make flying to Europe in the summer make sense

Some friends of mine asked me the other day about flying to Europe in summer and I realized I’d not yet written anything about that. The short answer is: No. Don’t go. You should not go to Europe in midsummer.  Between June and August, Europe is overrun with tourists, and everything is more crowded, expensive and not as nice The weather can be either drearily wet or annoyingly hot and humid. That’s the sad truth to the thing, but if for some reason you find you have to go then, there are things you can do that will make it a lot easier to deal with.

Graveyard at the Rock of Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland.

 

1. Do not fly into a major hub. The horror. Do not fly directly into Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle or Rome. No. Stop. Go back. Fly into lesser known airports like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Oslo, Zurich and continue from there.

2 Fly on off-days. If possible, always fly on a Tues, Wed or Friday. Those days are usually much cheaper than weekends and you’ll benefit from having slightly less crazy connections in whatever airport you are flying through.

Russia. St. Petersburg. Tour boat and the Church on Spilled Blood

3. Keep an eye open for Business-class fare sales. Business travel wanes during the summer and there are often really good business-class fare sales that bring down the cost of a business class flight to the same as coach. So you’ll still be spending the money, but enjoying a much more leisurely and enjoyable flight.

4. Take advantage of Iceland Air’s stopover program. For little more than regular coach fare in Economy you can fly via Iceland to almost anywhere in Europe. So on top of whatever you were planning on doing in mainland Europe, you can spend a few days coming or going in Iceland, hiking among waterfalls, viewing glaciers and enjoying some endless twilight evenings.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 8.56.56 AM

 

5.  Suck it up and pay. You know what? You can’t always get a deal, and that’s okay. Your comfort and sanity is worth more than having a convoluted 2-stop itinerary to France with long layovers and many opportunities for missed connections and luggage gone AWOL. But if you do pay full-fare economy, make it count. From the western US, a round trip economy flight to Europe gets you nearly half way to the 25K miles needed for a round trip domestic economy award flight (make sure the flight code of your flight earns 100% miles, which for full fare economy it probably will), so choose carefully. Fly on an airline for which your home airport is a hub – look into flying their partner airlines and crediting the miles to your main domestic account.  Also, try not to have connections within the US (summer thunderstorms often cause delays). So make your first flight nonstop to Europe and connect within Europe from there. Whatever you do, a 9am flight leaving Saturday is the one flight to NOT take. It will be a zoo.

You’ll notice the one thing I did not suggest here was to use miles. You can, but you have to be clever, persistent and flexible to get that to work. Everyone wants to use their miles to do two things: Europe in summer and Hawaii any time. Don’t fall into the trap of being one of them.

When you don’t want to DIY: small group tours

I know what you’re thinking. You’re picturing one of those giant coaches where the doors open and disgorge a heaving mass of pale, bewildered humanity stumbling around blinking in the bright sunshine, waiting for their leader to hoist a small flag and escort them into the nearest tourist attraction.

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

This is not that kind of tour. There are, at most 15 or 16 of you. You travel around in a small van, hardly conspicuous. Your fellow travelers have all been many places before, they could easily have organized this themselves, but sometimes with work and life and everything, it’s just easier to let someone else plan all the details. Sometimes they’re women traveling alone; in some parts of the world the easiest way to avoid hassle is to travel with a group so that makes the most sense.  Sometimes it’s just people who like to travel with others, but whose friends either cannot go when they can or aren’t really interested in going there. I’ve even been on one trip with a honeymooning couple.

View from inside a tuk-tuk (auto rickshaw), Pushkar, Rajasthan, India

These kind of companies market trips of different styles: usually it’s a matter of trading cost for additional creature comforts. You might want to do one of their backpacker-style trips where you travel using public transportation in your 20s and the idea of sleeping with a goat on your lap on the bus makes you giggle. If you’re a little older, you might want a bit more creature comforts like a hot shower and a fancier hotel.

Palace at Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh, India

In my experience of about a half dozen of these trips the groups gel together in two different ways: either very well or fabulously. Seriously. I’m not sure if its just that people are on their best behavior or if something about who goes on these trips means that everyone has at least some amount of a similar world view but I’ve had some amazing groups, where people remain friends for years afterwards. It’s really pretty amazing.

I myself would probably not use one of these companies for a trip to Europe, just cause planning things there is so easy and I’ve been there so often, but for trips to Southeast Asia, South America or where you won’t have time to do much planning yourself, then it’s a great alternative.

Thali for lunch, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

I’ve also suggested that friends who have never traveled overseas alone use this as a stepping stone to that. You can sign up on your own, get assigned a roommate of the same gender, and you only have to pay half of the “per person double occupancy” cost (some trips have small single supplements if you become a forced single, in the case of no other singles of your gender signing up). It’s definitely a lot cheaper than going it alone would be, and easier if you’re just getting used to the idea.

These are the two companies I’ve done trips with in the past:

G Adventures

Intrepid

 

 

How To Save Money For Travel

Everyone makes choices in terms of how they choose to spend their money. I am usually choosing to spend it on travel.

Cambodia. Siem Reap. North Gate entrance to Angkor Thom.

By now, this is somewhat of a habit; I’m used to these trade-offs and don’t even really think about them anymore. To an outsider though I know it can seem a bit of a mystery. “I spend all the money in my paycheck, how can I save any?”

Simply put: stop spending money without thinking.

Everyone has a list of things they are unthinkingly spending money on. The idea is to examine each of these things and decide if that really is how you want to spending it, or if spending it on… say…. a flight to Southeast Asia is more interesting to you.

These are the things I’ve been able to examine, and cut, from my own budget:

  • No cable TV. I gave up cable tv a few years ago, and have never looked back. I bought an antenna to watch local news, and have Netflix and Amazon Prime for my streaming needs. I don’t miss it at all. This represents at least $100/month.
  • No landline phone. I had one installed when I first moved into my apartment, but cancelled it a couple years ago. Savings: $30/month.
  • Brown bag lunch to work every day but one day a week. This saves $150/month.
  • I don’t buy coffee drinks every day, I make it at home before I leave. $100/month.
  • I go out for few big restaurant dinners; I do get takeout once a week and do occasionally have dinner out with friends, but it’s not as often as most folks in San Francisco. This probably saves ~ $200/month.
  • No DVDs. Ever. I don’t buy them. I also buy little new music, listen to Pandora or Spotify instead. I buy few new books, usually only ones related to upcoming trips. New clothes only if I really need them. This probably saves  $200/month as well.

So what does that total to? $9360 a year.  Yep, I checked the math. There are probably a few things I’m not listing here that I’m not even thinking of cause I don’t regularly spend money on them, so I bet you could stretch this to $10,000 if you really tried. You save that, and you’re going to be going on a couple (or three!) nice trips every year.

Angkor Thom, Cambodia

It’s all about your priorities. It really is. Do you really want to travel? If you do, you can make it happen. I was doing an international trip (and a couple of domestic ones) every year when I was making less than $30k. It was rough, don’t get me wrong. I was eating beans and rice and shopping at the discount grocery store, but it’s possible.

One of the best ways to get started I think is to decide how much money per month you’re going to save, let’s say $250/month to get you started. Cancel cable, or the landline, or whatever else you have to do, then set up your direct deposit to put $250 into a savings account every month. That way, you don’t ever see the money, and it’s not there in your checking account tempting you.

Do that for a while, then cancel something else. Cut down on going to the movies, stop shopping as a way to spend your weekend or hang out with your friends. Start bringing your lunch to work. Crank the savings up to $500/month and keep going.

Cambodia. Siem Reap.  Tuk-tuk ride through Angkor Thom.

You should still have treats, don’t get me wrong. Get lunch with your coworkers every Friday. Get takeout sometimes. Go out for happy hour. But make these choices consciously, knowing what the trade-off is.

Then book that flight to Bangkok.

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.