Browsing Posts in Cheap North America Travel

how to travel more

“I wish I could travel more, but I can’t afford it.”

I haven’t heard this common excuse from a homeless person or someone who has been out of work for years, because then I might believe it. Instead I’ve heard it dozens of times from people who earn more money than I do. Or they have the whole summer off and just stay home.

In either case, what’s holding them back is a misunderstanding of how inexpensive travel can be. Or just not having their priorities straight. Or both. If you want to travel, it’s not hard to find a way. But if it’s #7 on your list behind gadgets, new cars, a bigger house, weekly clothes shopping, a Starbucks addiction, and your three pets then yeah, that makes it harder.

Traveling more doesn’t require winning the lottery, but it does require a little effort and some contrarian thinking if you’re not loaded. Here’s where to start if you’re not ready to chuck everything in storage and become a budget backpacker.

Game the Loyalty Programs: Sign-up Bonuses

If your credit is good enough to get an average credit card, then don’t get an average credit card. Get one that will really reward you in a big way for your spending. I’ve talked before about the Travel Hacking Cartel and how some advice I gleaned from that got me four free international flights in the course of one year. If you don’t want to pay for that though, you can spend some time on various reward-oriented blogs and get the lowdown on which credit cards are currently paying the biggest sign-up rewards.

airline rewards cardIf that’s too much effort, here’s a simple rundown that’s good enough to get started. 1) Get one airline card, preferably for the airline where you already have the most miles or the one you’re probably going to fly on the most over the next year or two. If you live somewhere with lots of competition and won’t use the card internationally, then get one (or more) of the American Airlines ones from Citi. That’s now the best domestic frequent flier program and at the time of writing they’re giving you 50K miles just for signing up and completing the minimum spend. That’s enough miles for an international ticket or two domestic ones.

2) Then get one that’s tied to a hotel chain. You’ll get the best sign-up bonus from the IHG one (Intercontinental, Holiday Inn) from Chase or the Club Carlson (Radisson) one from US Bank. After you get the bonus, you’ll have several free hotel nights. The Amex Starwood one is good too because you can transfer points to some airline programs if needed.

3) Get (or use one that you already have) that allows you to contribute miles to multiple programs and top off your accounts. American Express has the Membership Rewards program, but better bets these days are Chase Sapphire and Barclay Arrival Plus, which have a more useful array of programs and offer more bonus earning opportunites. Also, they don’t levy a foreign transaction fee and they have a chip rather than just a strip—both important factors abroad. I’m not getting a commission from any of these; I just know they’re some of the best options at the time of writing.

Game the Loyalty Systems 2: Leverage Your Spending

Once you have one or more of these cards, unless you’re prone to rack up a balance you should use them for as much of your spending as possible. First of all, every dollar you spend on cable, internet, phone bills, and gas could be putting more points on your balance. Then there are all kinds of bonus earning opportunities from mileage malls, dining programs, and using the card for purchases at that airline or hotel chain. Add up what you spend in a typical year that you could put on a card and it’s probably enough to earn another flight or couple hotel nights.

IHG reward card

On top of all that, there are all kinds of spending discount promotions too. In three different countries I’ve gotten a night at a Holiday Inn where I wanted to go for just 5,000 points because the place was one their “points breaks” listings at a huge discount. I’m likely going from Mexico to Peru and back this spring for just 20,000 airline miles on United (actually flying on Avianca) because of a discounted miles promotion they’re running for United Chase credit card holders.

Be Spontaneous

Sometimes taking advantage of these great deals means doing things in the opposite order of most people. Instead of deciding where to go and then figuring out how to jam that place into your budget, save the destination choice for last. If you can use miles and hotel points in Place D but not in A, B, or C, then go directly to D!

Or use a site that specializes in last-minute deals and just see what pops up. Examples in all budget ranges include LuxuryLink, Groupon Getaways (or your local Groupon/Living Social site for local travel), Jetsetter, Hotwire, CheapCaribbean.com, and most of the big online travel agents like Priceline. Or throw it wide open: go to Google Flights, put in your home airport, and see what comes up. If you’re freezing your butt off in Chicago right now, for instance, check this out for round-trip prices on an 8-day trip in January to go warm up:

everywhere flight pricesClick to expand, but here are the highlights: Phoenix less than $200, Florida less than $300, Mexican resort areas and Costa Rica around $400.

You can do something similar with the Skyscanner app if you have that, just putting in hour home airport and picking “anywhere” for the destination. Haven’t heard of the place before? So what. You can learn most everything you need to know about it in one day online, or just buy a guidebook right before you take off and read it on the plane. You’ll probably have a better time than you did on any previous long-planned vacation because there were fun surprises.

Extend Business Trips

When I worked in a corporate job, here are some places I traveled on my own over a long weekend: Montreal, Austin, San Francisco, Cleveland, D.C., Dallas, Richmond, San Jose, and Las Vegas. In all these cases, there was some biz meeting or convention I had to go to, but I always booked my flight back a few days later whenever possible. As long as the price was the same or less (it usually was because I stayed over a Saturday), then they couldn’t have cared less. So all I had to pay for was a couple days of local expenses. Could you do the same but you just don’t?

When I travel through airports on Fridays, they’re always packed wall to wall with people in business clothing coming home from their work on the road. A lot of them have families with kids I’m sure and need to get back. But if you don’t, what’s your hurry? Sure, Orlando might not be your scene, but you can reach beaches on either coast in a rental care in two hours. If you’re in Vegas and don’t like to gamble, there are a  lot of cool things to see and do within driving distance. Almost anywhere can be a fun adventure or at least a good springboard to one.

Go Local

When I lived in Nashville I had great vacations in Memphis, Lexington, Chattanooga, Huntsville, the Unclaimed Baggage Center, Hollywild, Birmingham, and some state parks. I can think of a year’s worth of cool weekend trips worth taking from where I grew up in Virginia. Weird places to visit

There are probably at least 20 places worth visiting within three hours of your home that you’ve never been to, but have some vague intention of visiting someday. There are probably 20 or 30 more that just haven’t gotten onto your radar. Then there are the ones that may not be all that notable, but are probably still going to be an adventure.

Take the commuter train to the end of the line. Pick a town on the map and drive there. Get a local book on strange things to see in your state and start visiting them. You might not think my sometime home of Tampa would have all that much worth checking out nearby, but this book of one-tank trips from there I got from the library once has been through several editions and has 57 entries.

Live Abroad

You want to really expand your travel options? Move somewhere that’s already foreign. Then everywhere you go will be exciting.

From where I live now in central Mexico, I can take a direct bus to a few dozen destinations and all of them are going to feel exotic. Who’s ever heard of Cuetzalan or Zacatecas? When my wife and I taught English for a year in Korea, we went all over the country, to strange places like Maisan and not-so-strange ones like Cheju Island that still felt very out of the ordinary to us foreigners.

maisan Korea

If you already live in Budapest, you don’t have to pay $1,200 to go somewhere in Europe. If you already live in Malaysia, you can just hop on a bus or train to get to Singapore or Thailand. Not only are you already living a better life for half the price, you can now travel to foreign lands without flying across an ocean to do so.

 

Frida Mexican money

Don’t look now, but you just got a little richer. There’s just one catch: you have to go traveling.

Trying to explain why the U.S. dollar is going up or down is something even experienced economists have trouble with, so I won’t bother trying. Just know that it involves the perception of our economy’s health, the relative strength of other economies’ health (especially Europe and China), and what’s going on with the corresponding economy of the currency it’s trading against.

The bottom line is, we’re in a golden period right now where the dollar is relatively strong, which is good news for travelers. It takes a little sting out of the most expensive places and makes the cheaper ones even cheaper.

Here are a few key places where you’re better off now than you were a year or two ago.

Argentina

I discussed this one in detail already recently, so go check out my cheap Argentina post. Today the “blue rate” is 14.7 to the dollar, compared to under 9 for the official rate. Take lots of cash.

living in Salta

Mexico

I arrived at the Guadalajara airport a few nights ago and laughed as I saw the exchange booth giving a rate of 10.9 pesos to the dollar. I walked over to an ATM and got 13.4 to the dollar. This is a great time to be in Mexico, but unlike in Argentina, don’t come with a briefcase full of cash. There are exchange restrictions and in most areas you’ll get a worse rate than just taking money out of your own bank account with a debit card. If you can find a CI Banco machine, they have the lowest fees. BanNorte has the highest.

Thailand

This country has been a political mess for a while and that is (probably temporarily) pushing down the value of their currency. Right now the official rate is 32.4, which is 10% better than where it was in late 2012. Avoid the protest zones in Bangkok and enjoy.

Thailand travel

Hungary

The first time I went to Hungary the exchange rate was around 215 forint to the dollar, the second time it was around 240. That approximate 10% move made a significant difference in how cheap it felt for a beer, a meal, or a locally priced hotel. It’s back up to that point again, so this is a good time to spend a few days in Budapest and then hit the countryside.

Peru

This time two years ago a U.S. dollar got you 2.6 new soles. Now you get 2.9. Peru can be an expensive place if you go during high season and you’re on the tourist trail shared by people with loads of money checking something off a bucket list. Take a side trail though or go between October and April and your soles will go a long way.

Peru travel

Chile

This is not one of The World’s Cheapest Destinations by any means, but when I wrote this post about how expensive Chile was when I was there two years ago, a dollar got you 480 Chilean pesos. Now a dollar gets you 590. That’s a 23% increase in purchasing power. It’s still going to be more expensive than it’s neighbors, but it won’t feel so out of whack as before.

Other Countries

The swings are less than 10% in the following in 2014, but right now the dollar is at or near a two-year high in Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Turkey, and Egypt. I expect you’ll see most of Africa’s currencies plunge in the next few months because of the ebola effect, even if they’re 2,000 miles away from the outbreak.

If you’re a traveler and you want to keep up with exchange rates, there’s an app for that. I use one called Exchange Rates on my Android phone and one called Currency App on my iPod Touch. In either you can set up which currencies to follow and it’ll update when you refresh.

Huaxteca.com

In two days I rafted through a canyon, jumped off six waterfalls, rappelled down a cliff, and intentionally swam right up to a place where several tons of water a second was cascading down. I did all this in a place you’ve probably never heard of, San Luis Potosi.

If you’ve spent any time on Buzzfeed or Upworthy, you will recognize the style of the headline above. It’s called “clickbait” by those of us who publish content and actually care about whether we have a real audience or just eyeballs. But I put that up because I wanted to talk about travel, sharing, adventure, and FOMO. (For those of you, like me, raised before there was texting, that’s “fear of missing out.”)

I run a whole plethora of travel websites and go to a lot of industry conferences to do business and report on travel trends. There’s been a major shift since the advent of the smartphone and wireless data uploading where people are constantly sharing—okay broadcasting—their adventures. There are a lot of unsavory aspects to that, like one-upsmanship, narcicissm, and “I’m here, you’re not” posts just meant to inspire envy. In the luxury world, this sharing has become another on the list of bragging rights. It’s not just enough to stay in the best suite in the fanciest hotel. You also have to show you’re having some special experience nobody else is having.

Rafting Mexico

I’m looking at the silver lining of that though and thinking this can only be a good thing for undiscovered gems like the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosi in Mexico. This inland state that’s one up from where I live in Guanajuato recently hosted a pre-trip for some attendees of the Adventure Travel Mexico conference. I’ve had my eye on this area for ages, thinking it would be a blast, but I was incredibly impressed by how much fun it was it and how authentic it felt in this spot where very few foreigners arrive. And it wasn’t just me. There were a few adventure travel agents on the trip and other writer friends potentially as jaded as me, like Juno Kim, Karen Loftus, and Cathy Brown. “Wow, this totally exceeded my expectations” was the common summary.

The whitewater rafting trip that kicked off Day 1 was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been on, and at this point I’ve been rafting at least 20 times. It wasn’t as bone-pounding and death-defying as the one I went on in Nepal one time that was like a two-day roller coaster ride. It was just fun, exciting, and enhanced by gorgeous scenery. The equipment and guides from Huaxteca.com Adventures were both top-notch.

The next day we went waterfall jumping. That’s a real thing. Waterfall jumping.

Huaxteca waterfall

It sounds crazier than it really is. Sure, you put on a helmet and a life jacket and you need to wear water shoes or at least some old sneakers with some tread. That’s because you have to walk over rocks that can be a little slippery before you make the great leap into the air. The landing part is mellower than you would expect though: the water is churning below so it’s a pretty soft landing. Still, you have to hold hands sometimes to walk in a line to get to the edge and that first jump takes a bit of courage…

waterfall jumping San Luis Potosi

Later we got some lessons in how to rappel down a cliff and…we just did it. I can’t say I’m in any hurry to do it again, but I made it. Again, the Huaxteca guides were really professional and patient.

Then we visited a hotel next to this waterfall below. We had a nice meal and hung out a bit, but just looking at it roaring nearby was not enough. If you’re at this Huasteca Secreta Hotel, you are next to a giant eddy between two waterfalls. So you can jump in the water with a life jacket and you drift toward the waterfall. Just before you get to the point where it would pummel you, there are some places to climb out of the water onto a ledge. After catching your breath and trying not to freak out, you swim across the current quickly and then drift down away from the waterfall back to where you started. Crazy sh*t but loads of fun.

Huasteca Secreta adventure

Did I mention that we went scuba diving in a clear lake the next day? Or that I have zero experience in how to scuba dive?

This is just one adventure area of Mexico nobody you know has heard of. If you get away from the coast there are dozens of others in multiple states. If you’re looking for bragging rights and photos that nobody else you know has posted, you don’t have to go very far. Head south and find some real adventure.

vacation rental

Sure beats a cheap motel

The first time I went to Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer market convention, I was in a crappy Econolodge motel with stained carpets, intermittent Wi-Fi, barely working heat, lukewarm hot water, and a lumpy bed.

This time I stayed in a pristine room with a heavenly mattress, in a craftsman bungalow house in a quiet location. The Wi-Fi and hot water worked flawlessly and I had a table I could work at.

The interesting thing is, the latter was cheaper.

There are plenty of times a hotel is the best bet for where you’re going and the good ones can be excellent spots to roll into to get some work done or be right in the center of the action. If rates are at their peak though and there are not many empty rooms, you can really pay a premium. That’s how I ended up in someone’s spare bedroom in Salt Lake City two weeks ago: when a big convention comes to that city like the one I was attending, even the crappiest places like Motel 6 and Super 8 will raise their rates to $150, $200 or more per night.

I used AirBnB for that crash pad (with some lovely hosts) and got a beach rental place through them the month before in Puerto Escondido. We paid less than we would have for a very basic hotel, but had two bedrooms and a pool to ourselves.

They’re not the only game around though and when you’re looking outside of the United States, there’s often another dominant player or two you should pull up as well. In some Mexican towns, for instance, you’ll find more listings on the traditional sites like VacationRentals.com. When we still owned our beach house in the Yucatan state, you could rent it for $250 per week through there.

If you’re headed to Europe, HouseTrip has more than 300,000 places to choose from and is active almost anywhere you would want to go. They can save you some big bucks when you’re in an expensive European capital, or just give you some more space and a kitchen if you want to keep your expenses low and have more room to spread out. Unlike some of those rotten chain hotels, the owners aren’t going to charge you to use the internet signal.

Athens rental

Kitchen of a 47 euros per night European apartment for 4

I pulled up their Athens listings because the Travel Bloggers Exchange Europe–where I’m going to be a speaker—is happening there in October. I checked out what’s available for four people and there are some terrific values. Plenty of apartments are under 100 euros a night and there are quite a few that are half that. If you get a larger place for more people the cost per person would be getting a real apartment for less than a hostel dorm bed.

I like hotels a lot and my job has me reviewing a lot of them. When I’m with my family though, it gets old when all of us are sleeping in the same room, sharing the same bathroom. Renting two connected rooms can be inexpensive in some countries, but often not. When we went from a cramped Bangkok hotel room to an apartment we rented on one trip, the price was about the same but we had three times as much space.

How about you? Where have you found terrific vacation rental deals?

Guelaguetza Oaxaca

When dishing out budget travel advice, I usually tell people to avoid going somewhere when it’s high season. There’s a whole chapter on timing in Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune about finding the sweet spot of shoulder season where you’re going. When crowds are at their peak, prices are bound to be at their highest.

Sometimes it’s worth it though. Sometimes it’s high season not just because of vacation schedules, but because there’s really something fantastic going on. That’s what I’m experiencing right now during the week of the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca. We didn’t even know this was going on when we first planned our vacation; we just lucked out. But now that we’re here during prime time, I’m really glad we made it when we did.

tamale festival

Woman making “tejate” drink at the tamale festival

I was originally going to call this post “Mole and Mezcal in Oaxaca” since we spent the first morning here at a tamale festival (many of the tamales featuring different kinds of mole sauces) and the next afternoon at a mezcal fair. In both cases we got to try a huge variety of them in one place. The tamales were less than a dollar each and the equivalent of $3 got us into the Feria de Mezcal where we could walk around sampling them or buying bargain-priced cocktails for a few dollars each. Both of these events were unique to the Guelaguetza week and would not be going on other times during the year.

The same goes for all the artisan stalls taking up the whole rest of that park, with each booth listing the Oaxacan village that artisan came from. You can buy direct from them at this time, with no middleman and no traveling out to some remote town and finding the workshop behind an unmarked door. Two other artisan areas were set up in different parts of the center, also temporary, coming down in a few days.

mezcal festival

But what’s Guelaguetza? It’s an incredible dance performance featuring groups from different villages around Oaxaca. It’s an elaborate affair in an amphitheater overlooking the city and was far more spectacular than I had expected. There were 16 dances in all, over several hours. That sounds kind of excessive, but it never got boring because they were all very different. My daughter was also more into it than I thought she’d be too due to one key factor: at the end of each dance they threw things into the audience. So besides the hat, seat cushion, fan, and t-shirt we got upon arrival, gifts were flying through the air every 15 minutes or so. We scored some things like cool little baskets, woven fans, fruit, rolls, chocolate, and packets of coffee.

Guelaguetza Festival dance

Guelaguetza is the reason to have lots of other things going on in Oaxaca the same week though. We saw Lila Downs one night in that same amphitheater and it was quite a production with all the extra dancers in town.

We had already planned to do some shopping to buy things for our house in Mexico, so we had a lot to choose from with all the artisans in town. Thankfully we’re taking a bus back instead of a flight because we have loads of extra stuff to carry.

Oaxaca City

There was one downside to being here in high season: we couldn’t rent an apartment to stay in near the center, so we ended up in a hotel. The hotel, Las Golondrinas, didn’t jack up its rates though and we paid 780 pesos a night for a triple. It’s a decent deal. We got into restaurants fine and no place felt packed out. This is a tourist city anyway, so Oaxaca can absorb the traffic okay. So in the end, I don’t think we paid a premium at all for being here during high season, despite renting a car for two days too. Everything was just more crowded than it would normally be.

For more information, see the Oaxaca Tourism site, where they’ll have info posted on the 2015 Guelaguetza Festival far in advance. See their festivals page in Spanish for others or get a good guidebook. You can also trust what you see on the About.com Mexico site because the writer Suzanne lives in Oaxaca and also works as a guide.