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.

Yes, Beijing Capital International Airport has Free Wifi… and a Star Alliance Gold Lounge

However, you do have to go to a kiosk and register to get the user number and password. You will also need your passport to do this.

I’ve only done so in the Star Alliance Gold lounge, which has okay food (you can always find noodles in the lounges in China), warm beer, juice but no booze. There’s a kiosk right by the check-in counter where you can scan in your passport and get a login good for a few hours.

The fine art of crack travel

I’m a bit upset that Expert Beacon decided that the Fine Art of Crack Travel wasn’t SEO optimized… sigh. [But it’s such a good title, I protested].

Here’s the next article in my series on travel:
Pack as much relaxation and sightseeing into your travel vacation [LAME… LAME title they picked….]

Belize sunrise

 

There’s the art of slow travel, and then there’s the art of crack travel. And for anyone with a full-time job (or full-time obligations) who harbors an equal passion for seeing the world, the latter is sometimes the best, or necessary, option. What is crack travel exactly? It’s the art of packing as much as you can into an abridged time period—call it a long weekend, a week or two weeks, or what most of the employed public might have to take off in a given continuous period. Here is some advice to make that time work hard for you.

Read the entire story here: http://expertbeacon.com/pack-much-relaxation-and-sightseeing-your-travel-vacation/#.UXQcdqJQHI4

 

How to travel the world on a shoestring budget

[Originally published in Expert Beaconcamel

One of the biggest lies in traveling is that it requires a lot of money. Too often, people give up on the idea of making their adventures a reality because they are certain the idea is cost prohibitive—so why even dream? This idea is perpetuated by the inflated prices often shared by tour companies (a week-long tour in China costs $2,000!), which further perpetuates the belief until its bleakness is just accepted.

However, seasoned travelers will tell you that indeed, seeing the world can be incredibly cheap if you know what you want, do your research, and are willing to live modestly.

Do
Do determine your commodity
There are two important commodities in travel: time and money. Few people have the luxury of having a lot of time and money, so most find themselves with scales tipping to one direction. Determine what is more valuable to you and base your decisions off this because actual cost is more than dollars.

For example, traveling from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Arusha, where most safaris take off can take 9-12 hours overland on a $20 bus journey that cannot be made overnight because travel by night is not permitted. A round-trip flight costs $350, and a one-way $200 by the local Precision Air airline.

The best shoestring travel is done when time is your friend and money your commodity. Take the bus. Enjoy the ride. Perhaps break it up and stop in Lushoto to bike in the mountains or Moshi to see Mount Kilimanjaro along the way. If you have limited time, the flight is the better value. Understand your commodity.

Do stay in hostels, couchsurf, camp
In addition to airfare, accommodations tend to be the lion’s share of the consideration for travel costs. Whether you want to go cheap to save money for other activities (skiing and diving are expensive hobbies!) or because your budget is truly limited, hotel alternatives are great ways to cut lodging costs.

All over the world, hostels and small pensions, or bed-and-breakfasts provide modest and clean places to stay, which can be booked via mega-engines like Hostelworld (www.hostelworld.com) or Hostelbookers (www.hostelbookers.com).

Also recommended: walk around town and pop into different places to just ask. Depending on your preferences and appetite, you can often book a room in a dorm for as little as $5 in some countries; in the same places, private rooms may go for as little as $20-30 for double occupancy.

Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) may help link you with a local willing to host you for free. And when climate-appropriate, a place to camp can be secured for free or just a few dollars a day.

Do budget on a day-to-day basis
If you have a Lonely Planet guide, there are often recommendations on how much on average to budget per country per day. On a shoestring, a daily budget (including accommodations, travel and food) should be range from about $15-$50, depending where you are. For example, in Bolivia, where accommodations in a hostel dorm can cost only $6, $9 is more than reasonable to encompass food, a few beers and local transport.

Do ask for advice, then do your own diligence. Really: do your diligence
Often hostels and hotels will have partnerships with local tour groups or travel agencies to take you on your hang gliding tour in Brazil or the sunrise hike at Tikal in Guatemala. Although sometimes they indeed may have the best guide or best price, it’s prudent to get as much information as you can and compare against your own intel. What this means is you should first have a general idea of what an activity or transport mode, for example, should cost.

Trip Advisor, travel boards, even Facebook and social media make this easy enough. Second, ask the hostel or hotel for their recommendations. Listen. Take notes. Then leave. Then, walk around town and check out competing travel agencies and even other hostels. Then make your decision based on cost and quality.

Remember: the best prices and the actual market price are not always advertised online.
When researching safari costs, you may find that a 5-day safari trip in Tanzania cannot be completed for less than $1,500, with most scaling north of $1,800 for a single person. However, on the ground, talking to fellow travelers and local agencies would reveal that in fact, operators work together to string together tours to make the most out of their investments in a truck and tour guide. Therefore, the actual market price of safari is $150 per day per person—half the cost of the lowest advertised price.

Do consider the value of all forms of transportation
While it may seem that taking a bus is always the cheapest solution, it is not always—nor is it always the most valuable. Consider that a taxi from San Ignacio in Belize to the Guatemala border only takes 20 minutes and $14 USD. If four people took a bus at $3 USD per person, you might save a hair, but the bus will not come for an hour, and you will need to get off and either walk an extra kilometer to the border or take a $2 taxi.

There is value in traveling in numbers, so do the math to ensure you’re getting the best bang for your buck and your time.

Don’t
Do not be afraid to do nothing for a day
When time is your commodity, the incessant need to get the most out of every possible day, filling it to the seams with activities is less pressing. It is, in fact, okay to take it easy for a day in a picturesque hostel like the Lanquin, Guatemala, where the cost of a dorm is $6. Spending a day watching the river flow by in a hammock and chilling in the outdoor sauna is not time wasted. And it certainly is cheap.

Do not be afraid to DIY
For inexperienced travelers, researching bus companies, hostels, even trip itineraries may seem intimidating and daunting. Therefore, booking a trip through a tour operator or guide company may seem like the safer choice.

Although they are able to leverage volume for lower costs (e.g. their cost to enter a national park may be less than what you pay out-of-pocket for one person), don’t forget that tour operators and guide companies are businesses that have overhead and need to run profits. They are providing you a value-added service, which may potentially be worth something but is ultimately not cheaper (plus you lose the flexibility of being able to stay somewhere longer if you particularly fancy it).

It is extremely easy to do research with online tools and validate your research with third-party reviews and commentary. For example, look for the Hostelworld hostel with the best location and user rating, then read the actual reviews from other humans to make your decision. There is social accountability like never before, which also helps drive up the level of service.

Do not expect that you won’t get ripped off sometimes—no matter how savvy you are
It happens to everyone. Despite the best intentions, you get ripped off—either small time on a trinket that you pay five times the value for. Or big time, when you find that your private tour of the Sahara, which you’ve paid $500 for, is actually only worth $120.

The situation sucks, but the joy is in the journey. You can’t win them all the time, but you can control how you feel and handle it. Accept it. Learn. Move on.

Do not panic when you first get into a new city/country
This is the time that most errors are made. Arriving in a new country, you are struggling to understand the conversion rate while trying to figure out if you can take public transport into town or need to splurge on a taxi.

You are a bit frazzled, slightly unfamiliar, and this is when in confusion, a taxi driver might tell you your conversion of the currency is wrong by x10 (this gets particularly confusing in countries where the currency is in denominations of 10,000, for example), and you end up paying him $70 instead of $7. In the instant you realize something is wrong, the cab is gone, and you are left in the dust, literally, feeling extremely stupid.

Take your time. Figure out your conversions. Ask for help. Breathe. Then proceed.

Do not be a miser all the time
It sucks to count pennies. No one likes the guy who is always counting pennies. At the end of the day, traveling on a shoestring is more about value than it is about hard cost. Determine what is valuable to you, and pinch in the areas where you may not care as much (what bed you sleep in, for example). Put the dollars where it creates the most personal value. Like beer. Or diving with sharks.

Conclusion
Too often, money is the factor that drives people away from world travel. But, in fact, it’s easy to travel on a thimble budget of as little as $15-20 a day, if you pick the right spots. By having a modest approach and being willing to do the research and plan it yourself, a dollar can seem to stretch into $10. Having time as your commodity is frosting.

How to find the best travel deals using online sites

travel sites

With the wide (and growing) array of search engines and online platforms to book your next trip, it can be increasingly challenging to navigate what’s most important: getting the best deal. There is, in fact, little worse than the stomach-dropping feeling of booking a ticket today to see the fare drop $100 tomorrow….

[Read my article on finding the best deals: How to find the best travel deals using online sites.]