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Feeling far away without leaving US soil

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Although in many ways, there couldn’t be a better time for international travel — The US dollar is kicking it, and once costly European destinations, like Paris, are very affordable. Despite these golden opportunities, many travel-lovers are skittish about traveling to Europe after a spate of terror attacks.  If you are among this cohort, we’ve got some local destination alternatives that may satiate your appetite for some far off culture, color, and cuisine.

In a recent interview, Jessica Norah, part of a travel blogging duo at Independent Travel Cats, tells us how we can experience a bit of Europe and Asia right here in the US.

WATCH our interview with Jessica Norah, IndependentTravelCats.com

Tell us about your blog, independenttravelcats.com, and the type of readers you attract?

Independent Travel Cats is a travel blog about international travel for independent travels, with a focus on couples travel, history, and mid to luxury range travelers. I attract readers who really want to know a lot of information about a destination as I write very detailed posts. Our readers are sophisticated and tend to have more disposable income than the “average” reader. I also co-run another travel blog with my husband, Laurence Norah called Finding the Universe, which is more focused on travel photography and adventure travel.

Many people would love to travel abroad this year, particularly since the dollar is so strong. But terrorism looms large and families are hesitant about leaving the US.  Can you give us some domestic alternatives to Europe and Asia that offer the feel, flavor, and flair of far reaching destinations?

The U.S. has some obvious more “exotic” locations like Hawaii which has wonderful beaches, volcano parks, and tropical plants. You also have Alaska where you can see glaciers, whales and polar bears. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is another place where it is easy to feel like you are in a foreign country.

In terms of places that feel like Europe. You can also take a “trip to Denmark” by spending a weekend in the little town of Solvang, California. It was founded by a group of Danes as a Danish colony and much of the architecture is Danish. You can eat Danish food, buy Danish dress, and appreciate the Danish history and architecture here.

For a taste of Spain, consider St. Augustine in Florida, it is the oldest city in the country and still has a lot of its Spanish colonial architecture. Or head to New Mexico. Santa Fe has a strong Spanish heritage as does the Old Town of Albuquerque. The central Plaza area of Santa Fe still retains a very European vibe and the city has some of the oldest architecture in the country.

For a taste of Germany, consider Hermann, Missouri or Leavenworth, Washington. Or join in on a Oktoberfest celebration held throughout the country.

Looking for a castle or stately home, plan a visit to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, Monticello in Virginia, Hearst Castle in California, or Stan Hwet Hall in Ohio. There is also a Tuscan style castle winery called Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley.

Looking for a long rail trip but don’t want to head to Europe, you can book an epic train journey on Amtrak and go across the entire country, discovering new places along the way.

Can’t fly to Switzerland, visit Vail, Aspen, Mammoth Lakes, and Tahoe all have great skiing and snowboarding.

Want to go on safari, The Wilds in central Ohio is a private, non-profit safari park where visitors can see rhinos, giraffes, camels, and other animals in open air enclosures in jeeps.

Experience the desert at the Great Sands Dunes National Park in Colorado.

For a good taste of Asia, you’ll want to head to larger cities like New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. They all have large Asian American communities and you can find areas like Chinatown and Japantown in these cities where you can eat Asian food, buy Asia products, and be in an atmosphere that can transport you to China or Japan.

For those willing to visit our northern neighbor, Canada has retained more of a European connection than the U.S. and places like Vancouver and Montreal have a strong Euro vibe. This year happens to be Canada’s 150th anniversary so visitors can expect many special events and festivities for an unforgettable stay.

If you were to suggest some exotic vacation destinations in the US specifically for couples, what would you suggest?

It depends on the couple of course, but I’d recommend winter holiday lovers head to Vail or Aspen Colorado, beach and tropical vacation lovers head to Hawaii, art lovers to Santa Fe, city trippers to NYC or San Francisco, and those looking for a bit of Tuscany head to Napa Valley.

Families?

Hawaii is always a great destination for families. Hearst Castle is a fun family-friendly visitor attraction, large cities like NYC have tons of family-friendly activities, and there are also safari parks in Ohio and California.

Boomers?

Maybe an Alaska cruises, a trip to Santa Fe, wine tasting in Napa Valley or Sonoma, or a weekend in Solvang for a taste of Denmark.

Any special hints or tips for making these trips extra special or for getting a better deal?

Go some place that you are excited to visit, not to a place that feels like a second choice. Also, remember that exotic just means some place different so don’t just consider places that feel like Europe or Asia, but places where you’ll experience new things. Sometimes these places are much closer to home than we expect. As with any trip, plan ahead well in advance and book early for best deals.

Don’t get caught by airlines’ code share ticket price mark-ups

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Understanding esoteric subjects, like code sharing, yield management, and confounding airline pricing schemes could easily become a full-time job for the diligent. With the help of former pilot, air travel and insurance expert, Jonathan Breeze,  we’ve uncovered — and hacked — a troublesome pricing pitfall among the airlines.

WATCH our Video Interview with Jonathan Breeze

Don’t get caught by code sharing ticket price mark-ups

First, let’s define what Code Sharing is. Wikipedia defines a Code Share Agreement as an aviation business arrangement where two or more airlines share the same flight; meaning that each airline publishes and markets the flight under its own airline designator and flight number as part of its published timetable or schedule. This is a common practice among major airlines belonging to major airline alliances, such as Star Alliance, Sky Team and Oneworld.

So, let’s assume for a moment that you are an American Airlines frequent flyer. You need to fly to Lima, Peru. So, as a loyal AA customer, you go straight to their site to see what’s available.

Departing on August 15th and returning on August 23rd, the results yield a lowest fare of $3,025 for a non-refundable seat in Business Class. In this particular example, LAN Airlines (LATAM Airlines Group) is the operator of the flight. American Airlines and LAN have a code share agreement and are both part of the oneworld Airline Alliance. That said, the assumption would be that the price would be the price, right? But if you visit LAN’s website and query the same departure and arrival information for the dates above, as you can see there is quite a BIG difference in price — $1,834 vs. $3,025.

Jonathan advises air travelers to be mindful and wary of this yield management practice. If you see that a flight is being operated by a partner of your preferred airline, do a quick cross-check on their website to be sure you are getting the best possible price — if they are partners in a major airline alliance your ability to accrue points/miles will not be affected.

Travel insurance is sexy when it helps you beat the airlines

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

You’ve heard the phrase, “Go Big or Go Home”? Well, Jonathan Breeze, CEO of Aardvark Compare, has his own motto, “Go Non-Refundable and Travel Insure!”. Don’t start yawning because you think this post is about insurance.  Once you wrap your head around Jonathan’s awesome travel hack, you’re going to perk right up.

Did you know that a large majority of companies insist that their employees book Refundable Airline tickets? In doing so, they believe they are enjoying increased flexibility in the event of cancellation or rebooking. Sure, that’s all well and good, but they are paying through the teeth for that allowance — typically three times more than they should be.

According to Breeze, there is a little-known travel hack that will beat the airlines at their own game. “The airlines are robbing us blind with their 3x pricing on refundable tickets. That is the basic math. The seat price for a Refundable flight, particularly when booked far in advance, is typically 3 or 4 times as much as a Non-Refundable flight. You will hear of these Non-Refundable tickets being called ‘Throwaway Tickets’ because if you don’t fly, you may as well throw them away.

The best way to think about Non-Refundable tickets is ‘Inexpensive, yet Insurable’. Not as sexy, I grant you, but certainly, much, much cheaper, most of the time, ” says Breeze.

Simplistically, a Refundable Seat can cost 300% of the price of a Non-Refundable Seat bundled with inexpensive insurance.

So, if one buys a Refundable Round Trip Economy Ticket, say from DFW to LAX in August for a week (6 months from now), American wants $2,100 for a Main Cabin Fully Flexible Seat. It’s in the Main Cabin, but it’s more expensive than a First Class seat.

aarvark compare

So, you bypass this option to seek a more traditional Main Cabin (Economy) seat. And now, this looks like a bargain, after you managed to avoid the $2,100 fully flex seat.

Breeze points out that American wants $1,150 for a Main Cabin Flexible Seat. So, it is flexible, just not ‘fully’ flexible. Travelers may change their flights, not lose all of their money, but they will need to pay for the effort to make the flight change — a $200 change fee.

aarvark compare

According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the Top 25 US Airlines rake in $3Bn a year in Reservation Change Fees. And $4Bn a year in Baggage Fees.

“If businesses didn’t hate the airlines before, they probably hate them now,” says Breeze.

“But, let’s go beat them at their own game…

Just before I hit the ‘Buy’ button, I, unlike almost every traveler, decide to get creative. Why not buy a Non-Refundable seat, and wrap it up with some ‘Cancel For Any Reason’ Travel Insurance from a Marketplace, similar to what we do at AardvarkCompare.com.

aarvark4

American wants $400 for the Non-Refundable Main Cabin Seat. Add the Insurance, it will cost around $50 — And you’re bulletproof! You have secured coverage for Cancellation (Sickness, Death, Incapacitation etc) – 100% Refund; Cancellation for Work Reason – 100% Refund; and Cancellation for any other Reason – 75% Refund.”

So, for $450 a customer booking that DFW – LAX return has nearly the same level of coverage as the person paying $1,150 for the exact same seat — A $700 savings.

Breeze emphasizes that the person in the $1,150 seat still has to pay $200 every time they make a change. Whereas the person in the $450 seat just needs to throw the ticket away and use their insurance if a flight needs to be canceled.

“However, I haven’t explored why these price discrepancies exist. Normally there is no such thing as a free lunch.

It’s pretty simple – Travel Insurance is based on risk, and the probability of claim.

Whereas flight prices are based on pricing models that try to wring as much money out of a passenger as possible.

And if a company likes to fly some of the Execs in First Class, the numbers become even more staggering. Recently we ran a study that showed a $16,600 saving on a First Class ticket, using this exact same methodology.”

Top Travel Hacks for 2017

According to Expedia and ARC’s annual Global Air Travel Outlook for 2017, travel hackers may not have to work quite as hard to get air travel deals in 2017.  It seems average ticket prices for economy class are dropping all over the world.  In fact, they haven’t been this low since 2013. Good news!  But wait, there’s more!  We’ve gathered tips and anecdotes from veteran travel hackers and experts to give you a definitive 2017 travel hacking cheat sheet.

WATCH our interview with Randi Wolfson of Skyscanner

  1. Use a VPN and clear your cookies!

David Bakke from MoneyCrashers.com says before you start shopping for travel deals you need to outsmart the search engines. “Make sure private browsing is enabled on your computer before shopping for travel deals – or at the very least clear your cookies. Due to airlines’ use of dynamic pricing, websites may show higher prices if you’ve clicked on them before.”

“It’s not widely known that the price of a particular flight may differ when booked from varying locations. One of the ways around this is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that will allow you to check and compare the fares of the same flight by connecting to multiple countries and then book from the location with the cheapest price. This can save you a lot of money,” says Haris Mumtaz of PureVPN.

  1. Airline gold and credit card perks

According to FoxNews Travel writer and GotoTravelGal.com blogger, Lyn Mettler, one of the best travel hacks for 2017 will continue to be the Southwest Companion Pass, which allows one person to fly free with the pass holder for up to two years. “It’s fairly simple to earn the pass, which is achieved after you earn 110,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points. To easily earn the pass, you need to sign up for two Southwest credit cards, meet the minimum spend of $2000 through everyday spending that you can pay off within a month and then earn an additional 6000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points. Once you have 110,000 points, then book a lot of flights without spending a dime on airfare aside from the government required $5.80 per way security fee. My family of four has flown to six destinations within a year for less than $100 per flight using my methods.”

Robert Schrader, a popular travel blogger at LeaveYourDailyHell.com, says credit cards are the key to flying free in 2017, even more so than in 2016. “Now that all major U.S. airlines have finished their race to the bottom—they all use revenue-based mileage earning and have even introduced “basic economy” fares that earn no miles at all—earning free travel via flying is impossible for all but a few travelers.”

“Moreover, with poor airline lounge quality and scant upgrade availability, elite status has little value. Contrast this with generous credit card bonuses, from a recent targeted AMEX Business Platinum offer of 100,000 to 50,000 becoming standard on American Airlines co-branded cards from Citi.”

  1. Best practices for air travel savings

Valerie Bowden, author of Backpacking Africa for Beginners, offers three tried and true best practices for saving money if traveling by air.

  • Reconsider one-way flights. I’ve saved an enormous amount of money by skipping out on round-way tickets. First, airlines make a lot of money with canceled or rescheduled tickets. If you didn’t buy travel insurance, you’re looking at a $200-300 fee. Second, one-way tickets allow you to get better deals. For examples, one time I got a flight from Africa to the US for only $355 (including taxes!). Most tickets within the US cost that amount or more. This is all because I found a quick sale happening that I was able to take advantage of.
  • Take New or Rarely Used Airlines. Another reason why I found such a great sale was because I took Saudi Airlines. It sounds risky. But often Middle Eastern or Developing Countries have great new airlines, and they try hard to promote them. Through sales and special deals, you get tickets much cheaper than you would be taking Delta or Lufthansa.
  • Be flexible. Flights can vary by hundreds of dollars even within a 24-hour span. I like websites that let you search one month at a time because then you can see the best deals. For that, Skyscanner is by far my favorite. 
  1. Housesitting & Hotel Hacks

The ultimate travel hack to cut out ALL accommodation (and often food) costs is housesitting. According to Tanbay Theune, a professional house/ pet sitter and blogger at www.travellingweasels.com, The perks are hard to dismiss. “Most homeowners treat you like a guest. They pick you up from the airport/train station/ bus stop. They cook you a meal or two and leave you some food in the cupboards. All gladly received when traveling on a budget – and even when you’re not! They also show you the area and the secret spots only the locals know.”

James, another devout house-sitter, and blogger at portugalist.com, acknowledges that getting that first house sit can be difficult as you won’t have any references or experience. “The first two I did were actually in the town I lived at the time (Edinburgh). I did them just for the reference. Then, I applied for ones that I was interested in and managed to get several back-to-backs in France. One was five month’s long so, in the end, I was able to spend nine month’s there.”

James has written a list of sites where you can find those opportunities. Of these, Trusted Housesitters is the biggest and it has the most opportunities.

For folks who want to go traditional with their accommodations, Abigail, a travel blogger at Where Abigail Went,  says one of the best travel hacks she knows is this: Check if any of your family or friends are full-time employees of hotel chains. Associates’ friends and family are able to enjoy preferred rates.

“Now that Marriott and Starwood have merged, for instance, you can take advantage of the extended Explore Friends program, which entitles you to book an unlimited number of nights per year for leisure travel at any of their hotels across the world, based on availability. You can save up to 50% off rooms this way, which is a fantastic deal.”

  1. Avoid duty and tax fees at the airport

“I recently bought a blender for my mom for her birthday and had to carry it with me all the way from Australia to South Africa. It’s small enough to fit into my luggage, but when I was going through the boarding gates, they charged me tax on the item. I then saw a guy in front of me going through the boarding gates with a couple of gifts. He paid no tax on the items, simply because they were gift-wrapped. So, to avoid paying tax or duty fees on any items, make sure to wrap them in gift wrapping paper and declare them as gifts!” — Gerrard Hattfield, Flight Factory

Why 2017 needs to be the year you try solo travel

ExpertFlyer Hot Topics — Where the Rubber Meets the Runway

Young and intrepid or all grown up seeking an adventure that’s all yours?  We interviewed Brenda Mejia, solo travel enthusiast and author of the blog, Traveleira.com, to understand the fears that hold us back from solo travel and the joys of getting past the fear and exploring the world.

WATCH our interview with Brenda Mejia, blogger at Traveleira.com

“I started traveling solo when I was 23. I didn’t have any friends that were into traveling or the destinations I was interested in visiting. So, I just said, you know what, I need to do this. I bought my ticket to Scandinavia and I haven’t stopped traveling solo ever since.” — Brenda Mejia

Now a 27-year-old grad student living in Spain, Brenda says that fear is normal, but you can’t let it be the cause of missing out on all that life and people of other countries and cultures have to offer.  “The biggest fear of first-time solo travelers is, of course, the solo part, and doing everything by oneself.  But, if the biggest fear is being alone, then the biggest surprise that solo travel offers is the number of new and interesting friends you make from all over the world!  When you travel with a group of friends, think about it…you are focused on them: talking to them, eating with them, touring with them.  You don’t make yourself available to other people.  When you travel alone — you are much more approachable and more likely to strike up a conversation with someone new.  That’s an amazing gift!”

As a backup, Brenda uses the coachsurfing.com mobile app to find like-minded travelers at her destination who want to grab a beer or go visit a tourist site or restaurant. “If I want to hit a club or something like that, I use couchsurfing.  They recently launched a new feature called CouchSurfing “Hangouts” where you can find people in your area who want to hangout. It’s great, because the people using the app have the same mindset, which leads to good conversations and a lot of fun. It’s a great tool for people who are traveling solo.”

To learn more about Brenda and her solo travels, visit her site at Traveleira.com.