“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Earn Frequent Flyer Miles While Shopping Online this Season

As we head into the holiday shopping season, don't forget about your frequent flyer program!  Before you go online for Cyber Monday (and the rest of December's holiday sales), first visit your frequent flyer program's website to see a listing of all their partner programs.  If you're going to go online for gift shopping, why not treat yourself in the process by earning as much as 12 miles per dollar spent, and sometimes even more.  Many FF programs partner with popular sites such as Nordstrom.com, Target.com, and other major retailers.  Before shopping, visit your FF site's partner sites, log in, then click on the retailer link.  This will ensure that your transaction is tied to your flyer program.

So while you're typing in your credit card number on the behalf of gifts for family and friends, at least get a little something out of it yourself by earning FF miles for every dollar you charge.  Below are links to some frequent flyer partner websites to get started.  For even more free mileage points, double up by using your credit card associated with your FF program, if you have one.  Maximize your miles and happy holiday shopping!
Aug 20, 2012 Addendum: I'm convinced that my current bathroom scale is drunk.  It can only explain the 2# weight fluctuations within minutes some days.  So I need a new one.  I went to AA's shopping site, connected to Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and ordered a new scale.  BB&B won't accept coupons online, so I found out that I can order the scale, then when it comes in, bring my credit card used, receipt, and coupon to the store and get a credit back to my card.  Perfect.  Money saved and miles earned!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program

Scenario A: At the end of a long day of sightseeing, you're in a foreign country, sitting on your hotel bed with your laptop pulled up and the free WiFi working its magic. You're in a modern city, in a modern hotel, bottled water is at the ready, and all seems right with the world, despite being 12,000 miles from home. When you check your email, you see a message from the US Embassy in the city you're visiting. "Notice to US Citizens," it begins. You are advised that in light of recent political events (which have nothing to do with you or your trip), there might be some local backlash and protests are expected in the vicinity of your hotel. You take a quick glance at your itinerary and see that you're due to depart when the protests are about to begin, and hope that your luck holds out and the airports will remain open. Within days of your departure back to the States, you turn on CNN to see that city erupt in flames, riots in the streets, people gunned down on the sidewalks, the subway system has come to a halt, and the hotel you stayed in has recently been evacuated and the entire neighborhood is shut down.

What would you do if you hadn't left when you did? Where would you go? Where would you stay? How would you contact your family? Would they know where you are, if you're safe? What if the local US embassy had a safe house for you, or arranged transportation out of the city for all US citizens?

Scenario B: You're traveling in a non-industrialized nation and there's a massive earthquake. All standard communications to the US have been cut off. Does your family know where you are? Are you safe? Has your building suffered damage? How do you get word back to the US about your condition and safety? How does the US even know how many citizens are in that country that need assistance and evacuation?

Scenario C: You're hiking along the border of two nations when you're confronted by the local police. They take you into custody and imprison you for an indeterminate amount of time. You're not able to contact your family, and they haven't heard from you in days. How do they know where you are and what happened? They can opt to contact the local embassy and inquire on your last whereabouts and negotiate for your release.

If you register with the US State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), your location, contact info, and travel plans would be known only to the embassy, your family, and you can elect to have your itinerary known to your Congressmen and the media (or not). The embassy would know how to find you, and your family could contact the State Department to learn if you were safe or not. They can also issue instructions about where to evacuate, where to find supplies, assistance for citizens, and other useful information in case of an emergency. All of the above scenarios aren't fictional, they've all happened, and the first scenario I was faced with in Southeast Asia. Due to the regular travel advisories that the embassies send, I was able to be more vigilant of our surroundings and was able to make alternate plans if necessary. Likewise, I knew that my family would be notified if I were in an emergency situation and that I wasn't alone in the world.

Consider the STEP program a vital part of your international travel plans. Like packing your passport and earplugs, take a few moments to register your itinerary online for free peace-of-mind.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Top 10 Tips to Snag Cheap Airfare

They don’t. Especially on international fares, one of these online travel agencies could have a fare several hundred less or higher than another. Check all the online agencies, and use multi-site search engine like Kayak or Booking Buddy. Also, most online travel agencies such as Expedia exclude many of the smaller discount airlines such as Virgin America (which was recently added to Travelocity) and Orbitz only recently added JetBlue.

Increasingly, airlines have “private” sales, reserving their very best fares for their own sites. With the exception of Southwest, which sells fares on its own site exclusively, most of the airlines that do this are smaller domestic airlines or large international carriers, but we’ve even seen Delta do it, and we’re not talking here just about last minute weekend fares.

If you’re at all flexible, you can sometimes save hundreds by adjusting your travel dates, often by just a day or two. Travelocity has one of the best flexible date search options in the industry because it searches 330 days ahead. To use this feature, simply click on the “Flexible dates” button just below the “to” and “from” boxes on the flight search engine (check these step by step instructions if you’re unsure how this works).

Last minute weekend fares are often great deals, but most people don’t realize that they can construct itineraries by combining two of these fares. Let’s say you want to fly from Boston to San Antonio next weekend. If there’s a Boston to Atlanta fare for $128 round-trip, and an Atlanta to San Antonio fare for $108 round-trip, then you can fly to your destination and save creatively.

Southwest offers daily “Ding” deals that pop up on your computer (announced by an audible “ding”, thus the name) that can save a few bucks off their already low fares. American has begun offering discounts of 10-25% when you sign up for its DealFinder feature and enter a promo code on its site. It’s also a good idea to register with airlines’ newsletters because they often send out special deals and promo codes.

It’s often cheaper to buy an air/hotel package rather than airfare alone. When we say “cheaper” we mean that the total package with hotel is often less than the airfare without the hotel component. Lastminute.com is the online leader in this field. Usually, they work best if there are two of you traveling since the hotels are based on double occupancy and they’re especially useful for last minute travel.

Although they’re much less common than in past years, probably because the airlines have installed new software to catch them, some of the best “blooper” fares and other low fares show up on Saturday mornings. We can only speculate as to why.

Because airfares fluctuate like the stock market, you need to check them every day, sometimes two or three times a day, if you’re serious about saving money. Airlines can update domestic fares three times a day during the week, and once on Saturday and Sunday (international fares change less frequently). And another little tip: be sure to clear the “cookies” on your internet browser Why do this? Some fare search engines may return the results you viewed earlier rather than the new, lower results.

It’s often cheaper to buy two fares rather than one. Let’s say you’re flying from New York to Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Check on one of the big sites like Expedia or Orbitz for a single fare (for example, JFK to Governor’s Harbor, Bahamas) and then do two separate searches (JFK to Nassau and Nassau to Governor’s Harbor). Since JetBlue flies JFK/Nassau you’ll want to check JetBlue.com separately). Chances are the two-fare strategy will save you a lot of cash. This fare trick also works for flights to Europe.

Let’s say you’ve done your best to find the lowest fare, and then the day after purchase your non-refundable fare goes down $100. Sure, if you ask for it you can get a refund for the difference if the only thing that changed was the price, but some airlines will charge you a service fee as high as $150 for domestic fares or from $250-$350 on international ones, wiping out any savings.

Monday, November 1, 2010



We've pretty much got it down in America. It's said that Chicagoans are the biggest tippers in the US. Regardless of what we know to tip or not (what, standard 20%?), as soon as we take off from O'Hare's Terminal 5, we're at a loss - at least I am. Sure, there may be standards, like tipping the bellman that brings your bags to your room. But the taxi driver? In some countries, yes. In some, not at all. The problem becomes, how do you know when - and who - to tip, and how much?

I recently read a fantastic tip (pun intended) in a travel magazine: As soon as you check in to your hotel, ask who will be cleaning your room, and tip well right up front on the first day. The author noted that even in a backpacker hostel, her room was always immaculate with fresh towels daily, where other guests didn't experience the same service. I'll have to remember this.

Who to tip varies wildly from country to country. When I'm not sure what to do, I spend a good part of my first day watching the subtleties: Watching people on the street - are they slipping anyone a bill? Hang out in a hotel lobby and watch the employee-guest relationship. Do your research first - I often pick up a Culture Shock (or similar) book so I know what I'm walking into. Visit a cafe and watch/listen to the people around you. At the very least, just ask a local next to you or someone at the hotel front desk what's proper. Obviously you're a tourist or you wouldn't be staying in their hotel in the first place (chances are).

Also, check out your local library. They may have some archived travel magazines on hand with plenty of articles about proper tipping etiquette around the world. In the US I wouldn't dare try to slip a $20 to the TSA agent that's patting me down at the airport, yet when walking through the "metal detector" outside the Egyptian Museum, a 5 pound note is much appreciated. Tipping a guard? Isn't that bribery? Not really, depends where you are. Again, watch the people in front of you. Watch some well-dressed locals to see how exactly they're pressing palms.

But also be careful for tipping "scams". Do you want to take a picture of a monument with someone of local attire in your picture? Be prepared to cough up a couple bills for the honor, as in someways it's not a tip, but a means of income.

Lastly, don't be too stingy, when it comes to tips or haggling over the cost of a homemade craft. Likely our US dollar is stronger than the local currency, so if you do the conversion in your head, what's another $0.30 out of your pocket? It's probably worth a lot more to whomever just lent you a helping hand.

Good luck, and I welcome your suggestions!


For some people or some trips, we can pack the hours before we leave. For others, I could spend up to 2 months organizing, then another week "editing" and re-organizing. Those are usually reserved for when I know I'm traveling on international flights outside the US that have harsher carry-on and weight standards. Below are a few tips that I've picked up along the way that have helped reduce my luggage load significantly, and also reduced my odds of paying over-weight or extra baggage fees.

1. Target - Shop at the Target trial size section and pick up some packets of laundry detergent, hand wipes, hand sanitizer, travel toothbrushes, travel hairbrushes (that also have built-in mirrors), and anything else compact that you can fit into your toiletry case. There's no sense in bringing a full-sized toothbrush if you can pack one that's half the size.

2. Flight 001 Pack - I am in LOVE with this in-flight pack from Flight 001. I'm notorious for forgetting small items in the seat back of the plane. So in my carry-on, I stick this 4-pocket seat pack filled with: earplugs, headphones, MP3 player/Blackberry, drink coupons, boarding pass, tissues, ID/passport, Colgate freshen-up disposable toothbrushes, hand wipes, eye mask, itinerary, clean knickers, socks, comb, Xanax/Ambien, granola bars, and anything else you'd need in-flight, or for a post-/in-between flight freshen-up. Then it hooks to the back of the seat back/tray table so I can just grab it and go.

3. If you run out of an envelope of laundry detergent, shampoo doubles as detergent. And chances are most hotels are going to leave little samples in your room, so take this with you to wash your knickers and other clothes. Pack half the clothes you need, and wash the rest on the road.

4. Conditioner doubles as shaving gel. Smooth legs, soft hair. Again, hotels give out sample bottles, so leave your shampoo and conditioner at home.

5. Shout/Tide stain remover - works in a flash to remove stains on the go, then rinse out clothes with shampoo or detergent in the sink at night.

6. Binder clips and a shoelace or bungee cord - Clothesline! Binder clips can act as clothespins on a clothes hanger and hang them to dry in the bathroom, or string up a bungee cord in the room and clip the items to the cord.

7. Space Bags - These are invaluable for reducing the amount of room clothing takes up in your suitcase. They especially work well on shirts, dresses, cottons, synthetic materials, and anything else that can squeeze down easily.

8. Travel size deodorant - You don't need your whole giant container. Chances are you can get a new one at a local pharmacy if you run out. Again, full-size shampoo, conditioner, shaving, and deodorant bottles only add bulk and weight that you'll have to pay extra for at the airport.

9. Power adapters - if you know where' you're going, only bring the adapters you'll need, and not one for every country/continent.

10. EDITING - Edit, edit, edit. You likely won't need half of what you pack, so about 2 weeks before your trip, make a point to remove 1 item of clothing from your suitcase. Find ways to make multiple outfits out of just a few items. Shoes can mix and match (although I'm notorious for traveling with lots of shoes, I've been able to edit enough and not miss leaving a pair at home). My favorite packing tactic is to start a few weeks in advance by throwing everything I can think of into a suitcase. Then eventually I'll start to edit down and compact.

I've toured Southeast Asian for two weeks with nothing but a medium-sized back and a duffel, and still my suitcase was only half full when I left, and 3/4 full when I returned. It may not be a bad idea to buy a small, light portable luggage scale so when you move from airport-to-airport, you can weight your bags and know if you'll be expected to pay overweight charges later. It's also a good idea to keep a copy of your airlines' baggage allowance with your itinerary so you can plan ahead.

Lastly, a note about luggage tags: I prefer to make mine 2-sided, one with my destination/hotel address, and the other side I can flip around to my home address. It's complete with dates of where I'll be, and phone numbers. That way my luggage can catch up with me when I'm headed out, and meet me back home. If you're traveling to multiple destinations, make out an accordion list of your destinations, then keep rotating them around in the luggage tag. This will save time at the airport by not having to fill in and mark all those tags for each piece of luggage. Don't forget to put a luggage tag on your carry-on, too, in case that has to go into an overhead compartment and someone accidentally walks off with it.