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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.

 

Docking Duffel

It’s time for the annual Passports with Purpose drive, which I think I’ve supported every year since 2009, and this time I partnered up with one of my favorite gear companies, Eagle Creek. They are supplying one of their new Docking Duffel bags as a prize you can bid on for just a $10 donation. (I’m proud to work with them again—they supplied a DigiHauler backpack in 2012 and it was a big hit.)

So what is Passports with Purpose? It’s a once-a-year charity project run by a few volunteers and made possible by a slew of travel bloggers and donors. Each year there’s a very specific and attainable project the money is going toward, teaming up with someone who already has the local means and contacts. In the past the group effort has resulted in some amazing outcomes:

– Built and funded a school in Cambodia

– Built an entire village in India

– Built two entire libraries in Zambia

– Funded the drilling of five village wells in Haiti

– Funded schools and adult literacy programs in southern Mali

Sustainable Harvest InternationalThis year PwP is teaming up with Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) to train farmers in Honduras. The organization’s goal is to provide farming families in Central America with the training and tools to preserve our planet’s tropical forests while overcoming poverty. Here’s more info on them. You can bid on a whole array of great prizes and the worst thing that can happen is you helped some people who really need it.

See the prize catalog here.

So about that bag…

This Docking Duffel from Eagle Creek is two bags in one. It’s a duffel with a removable shoulder bag that you can use as your daypack when sightseeing or to have with you in your seat on the plane. When you take that off, the duffel can expand, so you get more storage space where that other bag was. You get lots of useful pockets (including a clear 3-1-1 cosmetics pouch), a padded tablet sleeve, and a panel that allows this to slide over the handle of rolling luggage.

At 41 linear inches, it easily qualifies as a carry-on and will even fit in the overhead bin of those tiny regional jets. It only weighs 1 pound, 7 ounces (less than a kilo) but has a capacity of 43 liters. The company’s “No Matter What” warranty is one of the best you’ll find from any luggage maker, covering the bag for life. In my experience, that’s a reflection of good design and manufacturing: I’ve had close to zero problems with Eagle Creek gear over a 21-year travel span.

This transformers bag retails for $155 and comes in two colors. Winner must reside in the USA or Canada for this one, but there are loads of other prizes to choose from, including some digital goods and gift vouchers that can ship anywhere. Bid on this bag here, or see the full prize list at the Passports with Purpose site.

But hurry! The drive ends December 17, 2014.

Africa travel

There have been times in my travel life where I’ve practically had a location to myself.

Tens of thousands of tourists canceled trips to India when I was there the first time, in the mid-1990s, because a plague had broken out in one city of one state and it was on the cover of every news magazine. Hotels for foreigners were suddenly empty across the whole country, even though a total of 52 people died over two months (in India!) and it never spread beyond one region.

The normally popular area of Tana Toraja on the island of Sulawesi was empty in 1998 after riots hit Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, more than 1,500 miles away. We found a terrific hotel for cheap and every tour of the sites was a private one.

My family had our pick of empty hotels in normally packed Playa del Carmen back in the summer of 2009. Drug cartel violence was making the news from incidents near the U.S. border, more than 2,000 miles away. There was a swine flu scare at the same time keeping people away, even though more cases had been reported in the United States than in Mexico by that point.

Remember when people canceled trips to Vancouver and Banff in 2003 because of SARS disease in Toronto, more than 2,200 miles away?

Ebola is to Tanzania as a Raven is to a Writing Desk

Now we have the Ebola scare, which has led to a massive drop-off in tourism to all of Africa, even though this is a giant continent and the virus is concentrated in one portion of West Africa. Africa travel map

As this Epidemic of Ignorance article points out, “Those stricken West African countries are closer to Madrid, Paris and London than they are to safari hot spots, such as Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tanzania.” They’re blaming it all on the map-challenged Americans, which is fair criticism, but it can’t just be my countrymen if business is down 70% like some are saying. Surely people besides the Yanks travel to Africa to see wild animals.

But anyway, the panic is surely unjustified as even travel to the nation of South Africa has taken a dive. Even though “There are no Ebola cases reported in South Africa and the country is 3,300 miles from the nearest outbreak in West Africa.”

safari female lion

I find it kind of ironic though that CNN has an article out called Ebola Fears Crippling Africa’s Safari Industry. This is especially rich coming from CNN as lately people have nicknamed it “The Ebola News Network” for pounding the story into the ground day over a 24-hour period day after day. Gee, I wonder why people are scared? Maybe because your whole business is built around scaring people regularly?

Apparently wealthy people are smart enough not to watch cable news networks. “Rose Hipwood of the Luxury Safari Company says the top end of Africa’s safari market hasn’t been hit as hard by Ebola fears ‘since many of those clients are international travelers and can look at the situation sensibly.'”

Be a Contrarian Traveler

If you’re well-traveled and can read a map, you can make out like a bandit in these situations. If you see that the panicked masses are heading one direction, you can scoop up some amazing bargains in the places they have deserted. And those who run businesses there will do their best to make sure you’re happy.

Zihuatanejo beach

Scary Zihuatanejo

This is a great time to get a deep discount on a safari trip or a flight to Africa. Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo beach resorts in Mexico are probably going to be cheap this winter. They’ve got the bad luck of being located in the state of Guerrero, where 43 protesting students disappeared from a town in the interior and are probably dead. Roatan in Honduras is probably the cheapest place in the world for a dive vacation now since one of its two largest cities (114 miles away by plane) has been declared as having the highest homicide rate in the world outside of war zones.

Hey, I’m not saying to book a trip to Syria or Afghanistan. But if the troubles you’re hearing about are nowhere near where you’re really planning to go, filter out the noise and benefit from the fact that most people won’t bother.

 

Panama blue oceanIf you ask people what they think of Panama, the ones who have never been will generally stumble, shrug, or bring up some negative like the rude taxi drivers in the capital or (generally) boring food. It’s not a country the uninitiated generally have on the bucket list unless they’re the type that geeks out about The Panama Canal or they’re lured by the retirement benefits.

I’ve written about Panama before though since I’ve been there three times, including on the advantages and costs of living there. There are many aspects to this varied country. In the capital the main tourist impressions are glitzy high-rises, hip boutique hotels, and luxury digs. I’ve written about exploring by small ship, doing coffee tours, and checking out the adventure travel options.

This is a bigger country than most people expect. It’s not all that wide, especially where the canal cuts through, but if you wanted to drive from one end to the other on the Pan-American Highway it would take you a few days even if you drove all day and didn’t stop. You probably wouldn’t want to do that though. There are, after all, 477 miles of Caribbean coastline and 767 miles of Pacific coastline to explore. That means lots of hidden beaches like thisPanama hidden beach

And this:

Panama Pacific

The big tourism draw here though is the wildlife. This is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and one look at a map of the Americas will show you why. This little strip of land is the only connection between two continents, so a good number of the 900-some species of birds in Panama are migrating one way or the other and stopping here to rest a while. birdwatching Panama

Of course there are a lot of tropical birds that don’t go anywhere, whether it’s the Resplendent Quetzals I spotted on Mount Baru or the sea birds I always saw in abundance anywhere near the coasts, like this one just strolling along on Coiba Island.

The diversity extends to the plant life as well. Visit a market and you can see the wide bounty of food that can be grown here—from berries to coffee to pineapples to nuts.

cashew nut on fruitThis photo is a cashew on a tree: you can eat the fruit part, but that one cashew nut that clings to the bottom needs to be individually processed to remove the poisonous skin on the outside. (It can burn your fingers.)

They also grow sugar cane, which means there’s local rum. Ron Abuelo has been around since the 1930s and like most anything you eat and drink that’s domestic, it’s a bargain. (See this earlier post on boozing it up for cheap in Panama.)

If you go hiking in the highlands of the Chiriqui region, you can spot all kinds of wildlife and get a crash course in botany. Lots of orchid varieties you’ve probably never seen grow here, like this:

Central America orchid

And this:

Panama orchid

If you’re near the Pearl Islands or Coiba Islands, you can see hammerhead sharks under the water while scuba diving or go fishing for marlin and sailfish. Near the shore you will certainly see swarms of hermit crabs stripping coconuts clean and maybe a lizard like this cruising by your boat:

wildlife

The souvenir shopping here is much better than in neighboring Costa Rica, where there’s not much handicraft history to speak of. Here you’ve got more indigenous people creating interesting basket and the famous molas like you see here:

molas

The Panama Hats are actually not from Panama. They were just used here by canal workers and the name stuck. They’re really made in Ecuador. The woven hat that’s really from Panama looks like the array in this guy’s shop. He and his family make all of them that they sell.

real Panama hat

Some other countries in Central America get more adventure travel press, but there’s enough to do in Panama to occupy you for weeks. Even if you don’t surf. Around 25% of the land in this country is protected or is a national park, so there’s no shortage of opportunities for hiking. Pick from lowland jungle areas filled with howler monkeys or volcanoes like Baru where you can spot rare birds, butterflies, and maybe a jaguar. (We saw fresh tracks anyway on my hike.) You can also climb that mountain for the sunrise and see both oceans.

hiking Baru

One perception many people have is that the Panama Canal is just a man-made narrow ribbon going across the land. In reality, ships cross Lake Gatun in the middle, in an area that was flooded to make it deeper. There’s actually an incredible amount of wildlife around that lake and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center is on one of its banks. If you book the right tour, you can go kayaking in this area and spot 50 different birds without trying.

kayaking Lake Gatun

There are many tribal people who have mostly shunned the modern urban world. The Kuna people live on the San Blas islands and are known for their colorful embroidery work. The Embera Cocoe groups near the Darien Gap have traditionally tended to not wear much clothing at all. They’d rather cover their body with tats, like these musicians.

musicians

So…if you’re planning an overland trip down through the Americas or a spin through Central America, you might want to kick back for a while in Panama. It’s not the cheapest and it’s not the easiest, but you haven’t already seen 5,000 pictures of it already and it will probably surprise you on a regular basis.

Also, Copa Air has their hub in the capital city and they’re part of the Star Alliance for cashing in points. For guidebooks, my favorites are the Footprint Panama Handbook by Richard Arghiris and the Moon Handbook by William Friar.

Louisiana travel

Are you my mother?

The November ’14 issue of Perceptive Travel is out, with some of the best travel stories on the planet from book authors on the move. This month we’ve got tales from Louisiana, Greece, and Southeast Asia.

Judith Fein goes traveling in order to put aside the recent death of her mother, but keeps finding reminders of not-so-dearly departed mom when she explores the swamps of Louisiana. See Did I Have an Alligator Mother?

James Dorsey ventures to the top of a rocky outpoint in Meteora to find a gifted Greek monk creating religious masterpieces in obscurity. See Painting as Prayer in Greece.

ziplining Laos

Michael Buckley goes zipping through the canopies in Southeast Asia and even zips to and from his treehouse lodging in one spot. He finds that ziplining in Thailand and Laos may not be the worry-free soft adventure pursuit it is in countries that have been doing it a lot longer. See Zipping Into Big Trouble.

William Caverlee checks out two new travel books on long-term journeys and one on the rape of Tibet (by Mr. Buckley above).

Graham Reid spins some new world music albums worth listening to from Mali to Mongolia to Scotland.

Win Some New Luggage!

granite-gear1Each month we give away something cool to our loyal readers at Perceptive Travel and boxes of Kind & Strong bars are on their way to three people who entered last month.

This time we’ve got a brand new, just-came-out, hybrid carry-on bag from Granite Gear. It’s a suitcase, it’s a backpack, it’s a rollaboard duffel/backpack! If your sad suitcase could use an upgrade before your holiday travels, check your inbox if you’re on our newsletter list already. Sign up here for future ones if not. Meanwhile, you can follow us on Facebook and see the entry details there several times in November.

And don’t forget, several times a week our regular writers post something new on the travel blog. It’s full of stories you won’t read elsewhere, whether that’s a Portland Brewcycle tour, the mountains of Nebraska, music-focused North Ireland road trip, or where to eat in Canggu, Bali.