How to Stretch a Budget to See (More of) the World

[Originally published in the Huffington Post]

Serengeti on a shoestring
Serengeti on a shoestring

In a world of competing priorities, choices like wandering the globe or having a high-flying career seem pit against one-another. Can we proverbially “have it all” or does growing up mean giving up on youthful dreams of wanderlust and acquiescing to an annual trip to a forgettable beach?

I believe that fostering a career and seeing the world is possible with balance, desire and some smart planning for the parameters of constraint–generally time off and disposable income. Last month, I wrote about how to maximize time; for part II, I’ll address how to make money work harder for you:

Practice destination agnosticism: Being destination agnostic pays dividends; being destination and time agnostic pays back double. Flexibility on where to go (there’s a lot of the world to see!) will allow for capitalizing on the lowest air fares during time periods dictated by the airlines. On the flip side, having dates and places set in stone allows for very limited possibilities of finding the best deal. What does this look like done right? Try $500 round-trip to Turkey, $880 to Tanzania, $540 to Belize, or $950 to Johannesburg.

Despite airline consolidations and generally rising prices, there are still good deals to be sought via the travel search engines. My personal favorite is Kayak’s Explorefunctionality, which allows users to pull up a map and set parameters for the highest price that they’d be willing to pay for a ticket to any place in the world at any given time.

Ask for advice, but do your own diligence: I write a bit about shoestring travel, although I believe piece of wisdom applies to all types of travel. In three words, if you don’t want to overpay: DO.YOUR.DILIGENCE.

Walk into conversations with tour operators, concierge services, even hostel desks, with an understanding of how much things should cost. With tools like TripAdvisor, travel forums (i.e. Thorn Tree Travel), social media, and this amazing resource called “the Google,” preliminary research is easy enough. Don’t expect others to have your best (financial) interest in mind.

Then leave the conversation to do additional diligence on the ground, which may include talking to other tour operators in town and other travelers. Then make a decision based on cost and level of quality.

Not subscribing to this once had me swindled for $500 in the Sahara. But, doing this right meant paying $600 for safari in Tanzania instead of the $1,500+ advertised “best” price online (details here), and the $5,000 others advised it might cost. Do your own due diligence.

Don’t be afraid to do it yourself: For inexperienced travelers, researching the intricacies of bus routes, hostels, or even trip itineraries may seem intimidating, but online tools and third-party reviews have not only made research easy, but transparent and socially accountable. I often start with a guide book to map a general route within a particular country or region; follow up with online research and reviews; and book only my first night or two to leave room for local recommendations and itinerary changes.

To me, the “great deals” to South Africa that include airfare, some all-inclusive tour and group transportation are not only not the best deals (I can generally do the itinerary at least 25% less), but also cheapen the travel experience. Don’t forget that although tour operators can leverage volume to lower some costs, they are businesses with overhead that need to run a profit. Their value-added service may be worth something but at a detriment to your budget and flexibility. Plus, there’s nothing cooler than getting off a tour bus with thirty other schmucks with cameras strapped around their necks.

Get some loyalty: Airline loyalty that is. Sticking to a single alliance (Star Alliance, One World, Sky Team), will help create value out of the airline tickets that you’re already buying. Most will grant roundtrip domestic tickets for about 20,000-25,000 award miles, and international tickets starting at 35,000 (to Central America from the U.S.) Acquiring status will speed up the accrual rate: 1Ks with United, for example, earn double award miles for each mile flown. Credit cards are also a great way to rack up free tickets, although I recommend using a card with points over one that accrues reward miles? Why? When you buy a ticket with credit card points, you still receive reward and elite-qualifying miles that can be applied to airline status and more rewards. Accruing miles just means you’ll spend miles and cuts the fun of double-dipping. I personally use the Citi Premier Pass Elite, which gives you a point for every mile you fly. The point is, if you’re going to spend the money, you should get something back for it.

Calculate ROI on mileage tickets: Consider when it’s really worth it to spend the miles. If a flight to California cost $400 or 25,000 miles, I may choose to spend the cash because the trip gives me 5,500 award miles back (I’m a Premier Gold). You can save the award miles for a time that is really worth your money, like last year, when I flew to Patagonia over Christmas/New Year’s using just 40,000 miles instead of spending $2,500.

Seeing the world is possible even early in a career, when money can be even more squeezed than time. By being smart with a dollar and creating the most out of allotted time off, regular travel can morph from a dream into a reality.

How to Maximize Time and See the World

[Originally published in the Huffington Post]

Sunset cruise in a dhow in Zanzibar
Sunset cruise in a dhow in Zanzibar

Seeing the world can feel like an impossible feat, as it always seems that those who have time don’t have money, and those who have money don’t have time. Particularly in uncertain economic times, the priority of keeping a steady job tends to supersede the savory qualities of travel. We rationalize that you can’t have it all, and when push comes to shove, better to survive than enjoy.

Of course, there are the professions that integrate a fair amount of both–consulting, business development and private equity, to name a few. But, if you find yourself more limited to cubicle (or if your work travel is directed to the likes of Tuscaloosa or Cincinnati), is it still possible?

I’ve spent the past six years developing my career and averaging between four to six international trips a year for pleasure–without breaking the bank or exceeding my paid-time-off limits. I can say, with certainty, yes. How? In this first article, I’ll address maximizing time:

Take all your vacation days: According to Expedia’s annual vacation deprivation survey, after Asian countries, Americans are among the worst at depriving themselves of allotted vacation days. “Twelve days of paid-time-off? Thanks sir, but I’d prefer to take 10.” Silly, right? Take advantage of all your days; that’s why you negotiated them.

Make time work for you: There are pockets of time a year when companies give you freebie days off. The obvious ones: holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the slightly less obvious ones, like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Barring family obligations or traditions, these pockets provide the best return-on-investment for time. Aside from this, too often, people discount shorter one-day holidays that still provide an added value–take President’s Day, MLK or Pulaski Day (if you work for the City of Chicago). Taking four days of PTO during these periods still provide nine days net of vacation time.

Consider your destination time zone: I currently live in Chicago, and as much as I love Asia and Europe, when it comes to traveling over an abridged time period (e.g. two days wrapped around each side of a weekend), it is much wiser to fly south. Why?

  1. Time zones are close. The time difference between Chicago, Central and South America is only a few hours apart in most cases; in Central, there is no difference. Therefore, my body does not need to adjust and shift to a seven-hour time change that can leave me sluggish for half of an already short trip.
  2. Overnight flights use time efficiently. Many flights to South American countries from Colombia to Chile to Argentina to Brazil have red-eyes that depart from Houston, Miami or Fort Lauderdale (trying to be One World and Star Alliance agnostic here) around midnight and land in the morning. I’m an easy one to consume a glass of wine and sleep on the plane. It’s so simple: fall asleep in Houston; wake up in Rio.

Know your commodity. Don’t put money first when time should come first: A piece of travel advice I always give is to know your commodity. For most, this is either time or money. Assuming employment is the default, time should generally be the priority commodity. Don’t skimp on a $70 plane ride for a $20 bus in Tanzania just because the 10 hours of time you inherently “trade” can significantly impact what activities you can do. The bus ride may prevent you from going on safari for an extra day or keep you overnight in the capital city because you’ve missed the last ferry to Zanzibar. Actual cost is more than dollars.

Do your research: Research is ultimately the key to success to both preventing stupid, time-costly mistakes and squeezing the most out of a day. Going to Patagonia in South American summer (peak season) means that rental cars may not be available for a few days when you book them on the fly, particularly if you are a silly American who can only drive automatic vehicles (me). An overnight bus from Santiago north to San Pedro de Atacama can save you the loss of a day in transit. Taking the time to understand infrastructure challenges and possibilities prior to taking a trip has the potential to save a precious day.

Negotiate work flexibility: I personally believe that the age of the 9-5 is over. I can’t remember the last time I actually worked from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Some of my best thinking happens in shower; I fall asleep with my laptop in bed mid-email; and sometimes the conversations and experiences I have abroad inextricably affect my passion for my job. Most people are afraid to ask about flexibility: Can I do some assignments while I’m not physically in the office? Can I work remotely on Fridays? I personally believe in a world of hyper-transparency, and being honest about your personal desires can help identify points of intersection between what you–and your company–want. Retention of good employees is, after all, a corporate priority. But you won’t get anything until you ask.

There are many ways to stretch time, both on utilizing vacation days and maximizing each day on the ground. It takes just a few insights to help make time work for you. Next up: stretching a budget.