“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, December 17, 2017

How Do I Afford to Keep Traveling? A Guide to Airfare Search Tools.

There is one question I'm asked most often about travel: How do I afford to do it so often?  So I'm going to break it down and describe how easy it is to apply it to your own life.

1) I have no car, no kids, and no pets.  All these things cost money that can be used for travel.  But worry not, even if you have one or all of the above, there are still ways to find deals.
2) Year 2 of attempting to revive the dead Money Tree in my living room window has proved futile.  Therefore, I must resort to a few other tactics to still pursue my dreams yet still be able to pay the bills.

These tactics fall under one of the following 3 categories, which may apply to you at any moment:
A) You know where you want to go, and when, so you need to know when the fare is cheapest.
B) You know where you want to go and don't care when, as long as it's on sale.  (Or know when you want to go, but don't care where)
C) You have no idea where you want to go, or when, so just go when you see anything interesting is on sale.
My trips have fallen under one of these categories, which I've described in detail below.  The longer you use each of the methods and tools described below, you'll get used to seeing patterns in airfare, seasons, and what is considered a deal for a particular route or not.

A) Where and When

If you know where you want to go and when you need to go, this is where the Hopper app (iOS, Android) comes in handy.  Search for your destination, then by month/dates (green for cheapest flights, red for the most expensive), and search flights.  The app will give you hints about the best days to fly surrounding your dates, and any cheaper nearby airports.  Once you have refined your search, you can Watch the flight.  Then you'll get alerts telling you about fare sales on those dates, and a predictor to either buy now or wait.  I have to be in New York twice next year for certain weekends, so I'm going to set my Hopper to watch non-stop flights into JFK (because no way in hell am I flying into LGA) and buy when I see a good fare alert.

Google Flights is an even better tool on which to set alerts or check for fare availability.  Last week a friend told me about a $300 roundtrip nonstop fare to Iceland.  I wasn't ready to purchase, but I did a search in Google Flights with all my criteria (dates, non-stop, airline if preferred), and set a flight alert/tracker.  A week later I received an email from the flight tracker that the fare fell to $200.  I bought a ticket within an hour.  I'm not flying until April, but I don't care since I only paid $200 to get to Iceland!  I can't even get a fare that cheap on a domestic legacy airline to visit my family on the East Coast.  Google Flights will be mentioned in each section of this article, since I also use it as a tool to confirm available sale fares that appear in other methods.

B) Where, I Don't Care When

Let's say you've always wanted to go to Hawaii or Paris.  You don't really care when, or at least have some guidelines of when (a few months' window).  You just want to go when it's cheapest.  You also really don't care too much about the weather circumstances (monsoon season in India, hurricane season in the Caribbean, or winter in London).  You just want to GET THERE.

This is where Airfarewatchdog.com comes in handy.  I use this as my travel wish list.  First, get an idea of what a good fare to your destination looks like.  Enter your home airport and destination, and search.  The site will tell you what the current fare sale is along with the terms.  Such as, Chicago to London for $555 on Icelandair, fare available January through April 2018, with certain departure days.  You can set up all sorts of fare alerts which the site will email you when they see a great fare.  If the fare conditions align with when you can get away, BINGO!  Book your ticket!  This method has bought me trips to Argentina ($540), Peru ($400), and Turkey ($532).  I use this tool for airports where I have family, so when a good fare pops up, I jump.  A few years ago I called my sister and said, "Free this weekend?  I got a fare alert to leave this Thursday."  Or in 3 months.

I also love this tool because it is a good gauge for what typical and sale airfares look like to your destination.  Watch notices on this site long enough (plus the weekly email updates) and you'll start to develop a gut feeling for when you see a good fare.  My friend and I are planning a safari next summer, so I've set up alerts to a few airports in Kenya and South Africa to begin to get a feel for average and sale fares so we can budget properly.  Perhaps a Tuesday departure is cheaper than a Saturday, so we'll build that into our itinerary.  We also used Google Flights to search entire date ranges and months to see when fares would be best to Kenya and South Africa.  Google allows you to see almost an entire year's price projections if you search by date range (there are three date search options, so dig around).

C) Anywhere Anytime

You've been bitten by the travel bug.  You want to GTFO and really don't care much where the destination is.  Or, you'll know it when you see it.  The world is your oyster and you have a sense of adventure and an open mind.  Sometimes I don't know where I'm traveling next because I'll just wait for a great fare to anywhere interesting.  Many destinations that have been somewhere on my list - or not even top of mind - I've ended up buying immediately.  Such as India for $640 or Hong Kong for $540.  When you see a great sale, sometimes you can't say no.  Hell, when my friend Anna found out about the great fare I got to Mumbai, she threw her credit card at me across the dinner table and we booked her a ticket on the spot.  Her husband stayed home with the kids and we had an absolute blast running around Mumbai and spoiling ourselves at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.  Sure, it was monsoon season, but who cares, we were in India!

The Flight Deal daily email newsletter is a gift from the travel gods.  It's also responsible for draining my wallet.  See above.  It's responsible for why I went to Jordan over Thanksgiving for only $499 nonstop, roundtrip, and earned miles toward elite status.  I couldn't in good conscience not purchase that ticket since Jordan had been on my radar for decades and I've been keeping an eye on the average fare for a few years through Airfare Watchdog.  The Flight Deal is a daily email and lays the groundwork for distinguishing good fares from great fares.  This summer I saw a $668 fare to Bali.  *faint*  Waiting for that one to resurface... The email newsletter will detail sale fares from a variety of airports, destinations, airlines, and seasons.  It's a mashup of any place in the world, so you almost have to look at the email every day so you don't miss something.  And sometimes you have to move very quickly to get the sale fare because it could be gone in a few hours.  Usually you have to buy the same day but the flight may not be for a few months.

What do you do if you want the fare but aren't sure you can commit, or want to sleep on it?  This is where I love American Airlines.  They're the only airline to allow you to hold a fare for free for 24 hours.  If you don't book by midnight of the next day, your hold is cancelled.  No cost to you.  Carrie and I have used this method on quite a few occasions to lock in great fares.  For instance, you see a good fare and put it on hold (this only works on American, btw).  You sleep on it.  The next day you check the fare again by re-running the search.  The fare has jumped $200!  Ah, but you put the ticket on hold yesterday at the lower fare.  So you buy the ticket at the better rate!  On a couple occasions I've saved $400-$600 from a fare jump by holding the day before!  I've also seen this happen on group trips.  You put a fare on hold and tell your friends about it.  They don't pull the trigger and want to sleep on it.  The next day you re-check the fare and it jumped $100.  Suddenly everyone is afraid that it'll go higher and they book the fare at $400.  Luckily you put it on hold yesterday at the lower fare and saved yourself $100 more than everyone else.  Delta and United will allow you to purchase fares and cancel them within 24 hours by refunding the fare.  But I like American because they don't charge to hold up-front.  Yet.  Crossing fingers that they keep it this way.


I don't buy every deal I see.  I can't afford to.  And sometimes it's not worth it to me at that moment.  As of this blog entry, I have Gold elite status on American and if I have to spend money, I prefer to spend it on revenue flights that earn mileage that I can cash in later.  I learned from flying to Thailand a few years back on a great fare on Cathay Pacific that I wouldn't earn miles because the fare code didn't qualify.  I'm currently saving miles to cash in for the safari flights, so I'm trying to earn as much as possible plus attempting to retain elite status (comes in handy when requesting upgrades).

If you're loyal to one airline and alliance and want to earn miles on a sale fare, it's a good idea to check the fare code before purchasing.  Again, use Google Flights to look up the fare, proceed to almost purchasing, and locate the fare code (usually a CAPITAL LETTER).  Then go to your member airline account and find out what fare codes qualify for earning on the partner airline.

Say your office is closed (like mine) for the last week of the year and you want to get out of Dodge, but you don't know where to go, except you're looking for a good deal or something attractive.  Google Flights is also useful in this respect.  In the main screen ON A COMPUTER (the following feature isn't available on mobile), enter your departure airport and dates (and airline alliance, or # of stops).  Then click on the map to move around and see standard prices for destinations around the world.  When you have no idea where you want to go, this really feeds the imagination.

Now with all of these tools, when you purchase a ticket the same day you discover the fare sale, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to depart right away.  The trip could still be 4 or 10 months away.  It's not like you have to book today and get on a plane next week.  Sure, maybe that'll happen, but you usually have time before you travel.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Ecolodge Experience

Feynan Ecolodge has been named by numerous sources as one of the world’s Best Ecolodges. Since I’ve never stayed in an ecolodge, I wanted to find out what the hype was about. But to get there would be a three-hour drive back north through the country.
Feynan Ecolodge

I had asked how far the border was from where we stood. Khalil said there was no physical border. There used to be, one staffed with legions of armed men. Years ago a number of Jordanian military were killed in an attack, but ever since the peace agreement with Israel, the soldiers were replaced with land mines instead. This was No Man’s Land. Mines were cheaper than supporting an army at the border. Most checkpoints and watch towers were eliminated, save a few that we had passed (as well as being pulled over a few times by roadside soldiers to check ID). It was an eerie feeling to be driving along just yards from one of the most heavily-mined pieces of land in the world (oddly, this would not my by first encounter with a mined landscape, see also: biking through the Cambodian jungle in the dark).

We headed back north up the King’s Highway and right past Petra. To be honest, I’ve been swamped since I booked the plane ticket, so I outsourced the trip planning to the tour company. The itinerary hit every site I wanted to see, but I didn’t look too carefully at the sequence, except for ending in Amman. So this took me far south then had to double back a couple days later. I need to play more of an active role next time I work with a tour company or travel agent. It would have made more geographical sense to begin the week in Wadi Rum and continue to move north.At any rate, driving
The only way to legitimately access the ecolodge is to drive to their reception building, which is a separate building a few miles from the lodge.  From there, I was handed off to a young Bedouin driver who was to drive me to the lodge.  His truck was old, and I could feel the front suspension under my feet, as though the entire floor were going to dissolve at any moment.  He didn't speak much English, about as much as my Arabic.  When he asked where I was from, I dutifully responded Chicago, America... and I usually add "Michael Jordan" or "Barack Obama."  There is one universal truth when traveling: EVERYONE knows who Michael Jordan is.  He held out his hand, and I slapped it in high-five agreement.  A few minutes later we continued what loosely resembled chatting, and he held out his hand again for me to slap, although his hand lingered and I wondered if he were looking for a grasp.  A few hundred feet down the road he took out his phone and began snapping pictures... WHILE DRIVING.  Mind you, we were going about 2 MPH over what loosely resembled a road, so there was no danger in crashing.  However, there was zero reason he needed to be snapping pictures of the landscape.  He wasn't even aiming.  Then he asked, "Selfie?" I learned back in Petra to be a bit more stern and stubborn with my friendliness around young men, so I said, "le le, yalla!"  No... GO! and I waved my hand for him to keep driving.  He put his phone away and didn't attempt another photo op or handshake.  *sigh*
Apparently goats can climb trees
As I took a walk around the outside of the lodge at dusk, Ali met me outside for a chat.  We had just hear the news out of Egypt of the 305 victims of the Sufi mosque bombing.  It was an opportunity to find out how the locals in the region felt.  Ali was visibly saddened.  The consensus of anyone I spoke with in Jordan about this tragedy was that those terrorists were animals, that it had nothing to do with religion.  There were safe places where anyone should be able to worship without fear: mosques, churches, and synagogues.  No matter your religion, you should be safe in your temple.  No argument here.  We discussed the similar tragedy that America has been experiencing, the senseless mass gun violence.  These men, too, are animals, targeting innocent people where they should feel the safest.  Schools, churches, concerts... We agreed that there was no difference between the people who use bombs or use guns... it's all a senseless tragedy.
Water jar
By 8pm I was nearly passing out, and after a very brief period of stargazing on the roof (they has set up a powerful telescope), I retired to my room since I had been up since 4am and barely slept 4 hours the previous night.  The chest cold I had started to wear on me and sleep was calling.  I hope my neighbors didn't hear my coughing in the early hours of the night, but I finally settled down to a peaceful sleep after midnight. The next morning after breakfast a new driver met me to drive me back to reception.  This was an older Bedouin who was driving a brand-spanking new 4x4 truck.  He still kept the bubble wrap on the handles and gear shift.  As I rolled down the window to get some air, he kept wiping down the dashboard and I finally relented and rolled the window up so as not to get any more dust inside his new truck.  He was so proud of it.

around was just as much of a treat as sightseeing itself as the geography of Jordan is so varied. North of Petra we had to pass over a spectacular mountain range with a range of switchbacks I have had yet to experience. So often we’d ascend a hill and not be able to see the road dip down ahead of us, as I leaned forward over the dashboard as if I were on a rollercoaster. I resisted the urge a few times to fling my hands in the air as if I were on one. At the very top of the mountain range - which was a gorgeous geology of black rock - we stopped at a small roadside stall for a stretch. I scrambled atop a rock and looked out upon the vista that stretched before me. A great dusty and rocky flat plain spread out for miles. Across the valley the land rose up again. This was the West Bank.

The lodge was very relaxing... After a whirlwind few active days, I needed peace and quiet.  After settling in and a hot shower (solar panels on the roof heat individual room water tanks), I saw outside under a tree just taking in the scene.  A German group descending from a long hike in the mountains... a couple kids playing with goats under a tree, Bedouin coming and going... I watched the sun set from the lodge rooftop while a cat curled up and purred in my lap.  

There is no refrigeration in the lodge, so all food is vegetarian, and I didn't miss the meat because the dishes they served were the best meals I've had all week!  The bread that is served with each meal is made fresh by neighboring Bedouin women.  The lodge doesn't advocate for bottled water on the premises - because plastic bottles - so each room has a clay jar full of fresh mineral water.  This was the first time I have ever drank non-bottled water in a foreign country, but I had to trust them this time.  And so far, so good.  *touch wood*  There was a sunset hike scheduled, but I was so worn down - the staff couldn't understand why I didn't want to participate, but I've seen a lot of sunsets already - so I asked if I could help the staff light the candles in the lodge.  I helped an older guy as he gestured to me how to do it and where to place the candles.  The lodge construction was interesting, too, as there is an open courtyard, open hallways, and narrow vertical openings throughout the public places which force air through as a breeze.  Since there's no air conditioning, it's an interesting innovation for temperature control.  My
room was small but functional.  My bed was covered by a mosquito net canopy, and it was so quiet inside that I could hear my heart beating in my head.  In preparation for staying here, I packed a head lamp that was indispensable when night fell and light was necessary for unlocking the room door or even navigating the hallways beyond candlelight.  I really did keep to myself here.  Not talking to people and just being quiet with myself was much-needed.  Although I'm not used to the attention and would rather have been left to my own vices, Ali the manager was very polite and struck up a few conversations with me, and one of the Bedouin guides visited me at each meal to chat for a few minutes.  I imagined I was the mysterious woman solo in the corner - was I American?  Dutch?  Australian?  Who knows... the only tourist that spoke to me was a little girl of about 8 years old with an accent I couldn't quite place.  I settled on New Zealand.  

After dinner there was a presentation by the staff about how the ecolodge contributed to the local economy.  It provided jobs for the Bedouin (cooking, baking, delivering visitors, guides), and different activities allowed tourists to participate, such as spending a day with a shepherd or learning a new craft.  Income from the lodge also went to fauna and flora conservation inside the Dana Biosphere Reserve where the lodge is located.  I continued to be amazed at how much of an effort Jordan is making toward environmentalism and conservation.  But in a way, they really do have to be conscious of this.  Jordan is the second poorest water country in the world.  Their only source of water is the Jordan River, which was dammed in many places - together with mining has caused the Dead Sea to recede at 1 cm per year!  The country understands the importance of preserving and protecting the Dead Sea, so they've started pumping water back into it from the Red Sea.