Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Travel Secrets from Travel Leisure

Seven Travel Secrets From Airport Insiders


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Buckingham Palace, A New Exhibition.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Long-Term Travel Tips From 2015 Travels Abroad- PART TWO

FAQ  For Extended Long=Term Travel Through Europe and Further – PART TWO

We asked a series of questions most commonly asked of me when assisting someone with travel abroad.  We were most pleased to learn how Jason and Melissa were able to stretch their dollars to extend their stay.

1.       MyChateau - What apps did you utilize including for airline, hotel, home stays, etc.

a.        Accommodation(s) – J/M - We used Airbnb for the first-half of our 4 month trip.  We were burned by the service several times (unclean rooms, unfriendly hosts, very uncomfortable housing situations) and stopped using it.  

b.       Airline - J/M - We booked almost exclusively with Ryanair while in Europe.  They proved to be the best priced choice almost every time, even when compared with other airlines on Kayak, Priceline, Orbitz, etc.  There are some horror stories online about Ryanair nickle-and-diming passengers with bag fees, boarding pass print-out fees, etc., but if you follow their rules, you will save a lot of money.  Otherwise, we would just use google.com to compare prices and flight times.  It’s a great tool that seems speedier (and more responsive) than the others.   

c.        EuropeRail - J/M - We used RailEurope once.  They have a great website with a great interface, but we don’t feel we saved money by purchasing their 4 use pass.  Typically, it proves cheaper to just go directly to the train line’s website (renfe.com in Spain) and buy the tickets yourself.  The trains run freely in Europe and rarely did we find an entire train to be booked, so if you have time it pays to just go to the train station yourself to buy the ticket a day or two before your trip.  Typically it was cheaper to fly with the budget airlines in Europe than to take a train.

d.       Hotels - J/M - We used hotels.com extensively.  After our bad AirBnb experiences, we decided to go with a website/app that gave us rewards points since we would be using it heavily.  Hotels.com offers a nice “get one night free after 10 nights” programs that ended up getting us about 3-4 free nights over our trip.  Also, since we reviewed every hotel we stayed at, they started sending us $50 coupons every week to keep adding more reviews.  Great value.

e.        Taxis / Driving - J/M - Uber was fantastic for us.  It almost always proved to be cheaper than taxi cabs, and we loved it because it allowed us to pay with our credit card instead of with local currency.  Drivers were almost always professional, well dressed, and friendly.  Interestingly, some countries have different laws regarding Uber, so in Belgium (for example) we were asked to sit in the front seat of the car instead of the back as to avoid drawing attention to the fact that our car was an Uber driver.

2.    MyChateau - Were there any apps that you found to be totally useless and if so what were they?

J/M - We usually use Yelp in the US to find restaurants, but it was not useful in Europe.  It didn’t have the user-base there needed to provide quality reviews or information.  Even the Europe alternatives (Zomato) didn’t seem very good.

3.    MyChateau - Was there a specific carrier you found better discount flights over others?

J/M - Ryanair was an all-around great carrier, in our experience.  It has the best prices.  You have to make sure you read up on them before using them (they have insane luggage charges and boarding pass print-out fees), but once you learn the rules, you can really save a lot of money with them.

4.    MyChateau - Did any carrier make it easier to purchase, check-in, make changes, etc. over another?

J/M - Pretty much all of the carriers that we used had similar tools for purchasing, checking-in, and changing flights.  The only poor experience we had was with Turkish Airlines - their website was a bit frustrating to use, and their support team was terrible.  They changed one of our flight times 2 weeks after we purchased our tickets, causing us to miss a layover with no replacement flights available that day.  We accepted their offer to refund, but they only refunded us $100 on our $800 ticket.  We had to follow up with our bank (Chase - who were absolutely awesome about the whole thing) to get our refund.  Since returning home the airline returned the balance of our ticket and upon notifying Chase they said to not worry about it. Can't say enough good things about them.)

5.    MyChateau - Did you find purchasing one-way tickets lowered the cost (round-trip)?

J/M - No, typically round-trip tickets were cheaper.  Airfare is funny because it is driven solely by demand - we paid less for one way tickets from Istanbul to Chicago (~$450) than we paid for one way tickets from Chicago to Madrid ($~900).  But round trip tickets were almost always cheaper.

6.    MyChateau - Did you utilize a laptop or I-Pad to make any or all of your reservations while abroad?

J/M - We actually booked 100% of our flights and hotels/lodging using the internet.  We had a laptop (I was working abroad initially) that’d we use, and later during my leave-of-absence we had a tablet that we’d use to find and book hotels and flights.

7.    MyChateau - Did you use your cell phone for making any reservations, i.e. hotel, home-stay and airline/train?

J/M - We only booked a hotel once using our phone, and even then we used the hotels.com app on our phone to perform the booking (we didn’t actually call the hotel staff in person).  Fun fact: T-Mobile is our carrier in the US, and they’re European-based.  One cool perk of T-Mobile is that we got coverage (internet, texts, and voice) while in Europe.  The only charge was an extra $0.20/minute for phone calls, but data and texts were free.  T-Mobile had coverage in every country we went to except Morocco and Jordan.

8.    MyChateau - Did you make payments via your cell phone for any of the above ticket costs?

J/M - One time we booked a hotel via our phones using the hotels.com app.  Otherwise, we booked everything on our tablets or on a laptop.

9.     MyChateau - Did you utilize Paypal or ‘other’ features i.e. credit cards to pay for Airbnb or other home stays?

J/M - The services that we used (Airbnb.com, Uber, hotels.com, etc.) were all tied to our credit card.  That’s one of the cool things about these sites/apps - once you use them once, they save your info and it’s really easy to use them again.  We never paid for a hotel or plane ticket in cash - we always used apps or websites.

10.    MyChateau - Did you stay regularly at one address (somewhat as a home base) with the ability to leave items there (like larger pieces of luggage and stuff you may have purchased along the way) for some of your weekend travel adventures?

J/M - This was a big concern for us - we hate travelling with lots of bags.  But in this case we were travelling for 4 months and you can’t pack lightly for a trip like that.  As we planned our trip we tried to choose several ‘bases of operations’ where we could leave our big bags while we travelled to other destinations.  This has the downside of being more expensive - effectively, you’re renting out locations that only exist to hold your bags.  But it’s one of the trade-offs you have to consider.

In our case, we had two bases of operations.  For 2 months our base was Madrid - we had rented an apartment out there (using airbnb.com).  I worked during the weekdays, and on weekends we’d fly to London, or Paris, or Dublin, or Marrakech, etc.  Those trips were awesome because we would both literally take a backpack and nothing else.  Our second base of operations was in Rome - we rented an apartment there for 2 weeks, and travelled throughout Italy, visiting a site for 1-2 days at a time and then returning to Rome.  Some of our family also travelled to Italy during those 2 weeks, so we all shared the apartment and travelled together to the different parts of Italy.

One option to consider when you’re travelling to multiple places is to use the luggage lockers at train stations.  You can drop off your large luggage at the lockers in train stations for as low as $5 a day.  This really helps you lighten the load of travelling if you plan on returning to that city later on in your trip.

11.    MyChateau - How much luggage did you carry, i.e. one large suitcase each and one backpack or carry-on each?

J/M - Each of us had one large piece of luggage and one backpack.  We became experts at packing things tightly in the luggage, especially as we started to get more souvenirs.

12.    MyChateau - Did you make destination plans based on airfares at that time or did you have a punch-list of cities you wanted to visit in advance but not necessarily any particular order?

J/M - We did have a punch-list of cities that we wanted to visit, but we tried to move methodically from West to East throughout Europe and Asia.  We found tickets were cheaper if you fly from nearby cities, so this approach seemed to be the cheapest.  Sometimes we’d take trains from one city to the next if it ended up being cheaper.  Surprisingly, flying was cheaper 95% of the time.

13.    MyChateau - Did you find better airfares at certain times of day or did you just check out lowest fares based on wherever you wanted to go at whatever time of day it was?
J/M - Google has some awesome tools for finding the lowest Airfare.  If gives you nice graphs of what days (and sometimes what times) have the cheapest flights for your destination.  Typically, we have found it is cheapest to fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.  But since I was working for half of our trip, we were pretty much stuck to flying out Saturday mornings and flying back Sunday nights (or Monday mornings).

14.    MyChateau - For traveling from airports or train stations to your hotel did you take taxi’s, train or what?

J/M - Our first option was always to use Uber.  Since we had an Uber account, and our credit cards were tied to the account, this was the easiest option.  This was especially convenient when you just landed at an airport and didn’t have any local cash and didn’t want to be taken advantage of by a taxi driver - Uber introduces a higher level of accountability amongst its drivers.

If we just arrived in a city that we were familiar with (like Madrid - our base of operations for 2 months) we would just take the subway or buses since it was much cheaper.  This option was easier if we only had backpacks with us and not full luggage.  If Uber was not available in the area, and it was an unfamiliar area to us, we would simply take a taxi.

15.    MyChateau - Did you purchase any city museum passes giving you admission to all museums?

J/M - No, but this is a personal choice.  Melissa and I aren’t big on museums.  Those passes do provide a lot of value if you enjoy the museum experience, but Melissa and I tend to prefer exploring the streets.

16.    MyChateau - Did you purchase a Eurail Pass whether monthly or longer?

J/M - We did purchase a pass while we were in Spain.  We used it to go to Pamplona (for the running of the bulls) and Barcelona.  Getting train tickets in Europe was a somewhat frustrating experience.  The passes were a little expensive, and you still had to pay for a reservation even after buying your pass.  In Europe they differentiate in between buying a ‘ticket’ for a train line and buying a ‘reservation’ to ensure a seat for you on a specific train leaving at a specific time.  Had we travelled by train more, I think the pass would have been a better value, but we only ended up using it for 4 train rides.  Interestingly, flying was usually cheaper than trains.

17.    MyChateau - Did you rent or lease a car anywhere during your travels?  

J/M - No.  We had considered it while in Italy, but the rental prices and gas prices were way too high to make it the cheapest option.  Also, the challenge of driving on the opposite side of the road (in certain countries like England) was more than we were willing to take on.

18.    MyChateau - For home-stays did you utilize Airbnb or another site for your reservations?

a.        Which specific home-stay sites and apps did you use?

J/M - We used AirBnb extensively for the first 2 months.  It is the only home-stay site that we used during our trip.

b.        Do you prefer one home-stay company over another?

c.        Was there a home-stay company you felt handled the entire experience over another?

J/M - AirBnb itself as a company was great.  Their website is easy to use, and their support team is helpful.

d.       Were home-stay accommodations similar to how they were advertised and did they (all) live up to their advertised expectations?

J/M - Absolutely not.  And this is why we stopped using AirBnb after the first 2 months.  Some of the locations were fantastic and gave us a much better experience than living a hotel.  Others were terrible.  Some of the problems we encountered with AirBnb listings: rude hosts, poor communication with hosts on check-in times, dirty rooms, bed bugs, broken washing machines, lack of air conditioning or fans during very hot days, no elevators, unsettling buildings in disrepair, etc.  The prices were not much cheaper than a hotel, we rarely got to interact with our hosts in a meaningful manner, and you have to drag your luggage around with you in your destination city until your host is ready to receive you.

e.        Did you have any difficulty obtaining keys or ‘checking in’ to home stays?

J/M - Yes -  with one host in particular, communication was a problem and we didn’t get to check in until early in the evening.  While not a terrible inconvenience, it forced us to walk around the city with our luggage (just backpacks) until evening.  It also strained our relationship with our host who felt we were wasting his time, making our remaining stay somewhat uncomfortable.

f.         If you had any problems or issues at home stays were they resolved expeditiously and did you always have a contact to reach in the event of any issues?

J/M - Only when the issue pertained to cleanliness.  AirBnb was great about refunding us money when we documented cleanliness issues or canceling reservations ahead of time.  For other issues - rudeness of hosts, lack of availability for check-in, lack of fans/AC, there really was no remedy they could offer us so we did not contact them about those experiences.

g.       Did any home stays charge you security deposits and if so were they immediately refunded?

J/M - We were not charged a formal security deposit.  Instead, sites like AirBnb will charge you up front for half of your stay (when you book a long stay) and then charge you halfway through you stay for the remaining portion.  There is no refund for your payment since it is not a deposit but rather just a payment for your upcoming time.

19.         MyChateau - Did you also stay in hotels?

a.        If so, did you find Trip Advisor or one of the many travel sites to be more beneficial than others?

J/M - We spent probably 50 nights in hotels spread across two months.  All of them were booked through hotels.com.  We used hotels.com reviews and TripAdvisor reviews to simply find red flags.  Everybody has different definitions for what a “good” hotel and a “bad” hotel are, so we found it was better to look for warning signs in TripAdvisor and hotels.com than it was to try to really determine how “nice” a hotel it was.  Generally, TripAdvisor has more ratings and reviews than hotels.com (as far as we could tell) and provided a bigger chance of spotting red flags.  But, importantly, we always always always read the reviews for any hotel we were considering staying at.  We’ve been surprised by bad hotels too many times before.
We also used TripAdvisor to help choose which sites to see in a city.  Melissa and I would see the top 10 listed attractions in a city on TripAdvisor and it they were interesting to us, we would create a schedule for our day to see as many of the sites as possible.

20.     MyChateau - Did you set a weekly or monthly budget or just ‘wing it’?

a.        MyChateau - Did you have set budget amounts for daily/weekly meals, souvenirs, entrance fees for various museums, historic sites, activities, etc?

J/M - We had an overarching budget that we set up months before leaving the trip.  We estimated how much food would be, how much hotels would cost, airfare, etc., and using that determined how much the entire trip would probably cost.   Our guiding principle was to never let our bank account fall below a certain threshold, and to buy airfare and hotels in advance where possible so we would know how much money we would already have spent in advance.  Using this as our guide, we didn’t really have to establish daily budgets.

21.    MyChateau - Did you do any cooking in your home-stays to save on your food budget or experience the ability of preparing a meal with the fruits, veggies, meats, etc found in the fabulous markets everywhere?

J/M - Melissa is a vegetarian and we found it hard to get vegetarian food at restaurants in parts of Europe.  This was a shock to us, but also a financial blessing.  This forced us to go to the local stories more often and buy produce and groceries and cook for ourselves.  The beauty of it is that in Madrid (where we stayed the longest and thus cooked the most) there are little grocery stores everywhere.  And the lifestyle is one of walking, so you find yourself walking by different produce/grocery stores & markets all the time.  That is one of the facets of our travelling life that I miss the most - the ease of  getting quality food at markets on a daily basis.  We buy fruits and vegetables here once a week, but in Spain we bought them every day.

22.    MyChateau - Did you find that ordering fixed-price meals at restaurants was a better ‘deal’ than ala carte?

J/M - The fixed price meals were popular in Spain and Italy.  In Spain, there were few vegetarian options in the fixed price meals, so we rarely bought them.  In Italy there was more variety, but we found the portions to be massive when ordering fixed price meals.  So usually we would order an entree for each one of us, and more if we were still hungry.  But from a value point of view, the fixed price meals offered you more variety and definitely more value if you were looking for a big meal.

23.    MyChateau - Did you purchase alcohol during meals or buy from a liquor store (afterward) and enjoy at home?

J/M - Upon reflecting, we drink a lot more wine in our house now than we did before going to Europe.  And during our trip we did buy wine routinely to drink in the house with our meals.  Also, if a location had a special alcohol (Sangria in Madrid, Vermouth in Barcelona, etc.) we would feel remiss if we missed the opportunity to try it :)

24.    MyChateau - Did you find any anti-American attitudes anywhere?

J/M - Typically no.  Some people seemed to be colder than others (Madrid, for example), but this didn’t seem to be directed to us as Americans.  Most were indifferent to our nationality, and were happy to talk to us.  The one stereotype we were aware of was that the French were very cold or rude to Americans.  This could not have been further from the truth, in our experience.  The French were some of the friendliest.

a.        MyChateau - When visiting Muslim countries would you strongly suggest women abide to dress codes most prominent to that countries culture and also invest time to learning about the culture before stepping off the plane?

J/M - This depends on which country you visit.  Israel was incredibly modern and progressive, even in Jerusalem.  You may feel out of place wearing open clothing in Jordan but you won’t be ostracized for it.  UAE was the only country that advertised woman’s dress codes, but not everyone followed it on the streets.  I imagine this would be different in places like Saudi Arabia, which we did not visit.  Melissa did always look up dress codes for the Middle Eastern countries that we did visit, but we found that dress-codes expressed online were rarely followed in real life.  Our advice would be to look up the dress code, be respectful, but don’t be afraid because it doesn’t seem to be enforced.

b.        MyChateau - Are there any recommendations you can offer to those wanting to visit Jordan, Dubai, UAE, Egypt, Israel or neighboring countries in this time of heightened conflict?

J/M - We were lucky in that each of the countries we visited was relatively calm when we entered.  Specifically, Jordan, Israel, and the UAE appeared to be very stable and American-friendly countries, and the people were very pleasant.  The only conflict we experienced was an increased level of stabbings/attacks in Jerusalem while we were in the city.  It’s a little unnerving to see armed guards everywhere in the city and the markets empty, but that only happened one day.  We did not visit Egypt, but our loose understanding of its current political situation would encourage us to do some heavy research before going.  Our advice would be to read up on any conflicts in a city before going and determine if you are comfortable dealing with the increased stress that any corresponding military or police presence will induce.

c.        MyChateau - Did you pay attention to State Department Warnings?

J/M - I read them once in a while, simply looking for red flags.  We never saw anything that made us change destinations.

d.       MyChateau - Did you NOT make it obvious you were Americans traveling?

J/M - Our personalities are such that we wouldn’t normally advertise much about ourselves, including our nationality.  We’re pretty low key.  This worked well while travelling abroad.  However as long as you don’t view the world as “American vs. Non-American”, but instead try to be friendly and warm to everybody, you’ll rarely find that anyone cares if you’re American or not.  Even in the countries that people consider hostile towards Americans.

25.    MyChateau - Did you find the power of your American passport got you through airports, borders and most places quicker than those from other countries?

J/M - Yes.  In Europe it wasn’t as important (their border control is really lax), but heading towards Turkey, the Middle East, and India, we felt that our passports gave us easier access to countries and we didn’t receive as much questioning.

26.    MyChateau - Were VISAs required for any of the countries you visited and if so did you obtain the VISA here before you left the country or were you able to obtain upon entrance?

J/M - We needed VISAs to visit Turkey, Jordan, and India.  We got our visas for Turkey and India online weeks before each trip (so while already abroad).  When entering Jordan, we purchased VISAs at the border crossing.
27.    MyChateau - What other languages do you speak and if so did that help you get by better?

J/M - We both speak Spanish.  It absolutely helped us in Spain, and we used it extensively when shopping and eating out.  Melissa also speaks Hindi, which helped us in India.  It also hurt us, too - we had a crazy tour driver in India that spoke incessantly to Melissa during a 4 hour drive once he learned that she spoke Hindi.  

28.    MyChateau - Did you find that attempting to speak even a simple hello in the language of the country you were in - this somehow assisted in reverting the conversation to English and bring a smile to the person you were communicating with?

J/M - Yes - some people are amused when you offer a phrase or two in their native language, and it becomes a nice ice breaker.  We tried to learn “Hello” and “Thank you” in each language, and always started and ended conversations with those phrases when in public.  For what it’s worth, English is a very common language and there were very few points in our trip where we had to speak something besides English.  But it does absolutely warm people up to you if you show enough interest in their language to learn a little.

29.    MyChateau - What measures of safety if any did you take?

a.        MyChateau - Did you make some kind of emergency plan in the event of any kind of problem, i.e. health issues, accident, you got separated from each other, etc.

J/M - The most we did in this realm was learn the emergency phone number in whatever country we were visiting. Luckily we live in an age of cell phones and internet, so we never had concerns about getting separated or lost.

b.        MyChateau - Did your health insurance cover you out of the country or did you purchase one of the numerous outstanding health insurance plans available for American’s abroad?

J/M - My health insurance covered me for the first two months, but not during my leave-of-absence (the second two months).  We knew this going in but did not opt for additional coverage for those two months.   We found out upon returning to the US that Melissa was not covered under my insurance at all during our time there even though we thought we had added her before leaving.

30.    MyChateau - Did you use either credit cards, traveler’s checks, or cash obtained via ATMs for purchases?

J/M - We signed up for a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card before leaving.  It has great cash back programs that give you travel rewards points, and it also doesn’t charge you any foreign exchange fees.  We would alway withdraw a little cache from the ATM upon arriving at a country in case we found a place that wouldn’t accept credit cards.

31.    MyChateau - Do you know if you have credit cards with the new chip that European cards have for years and only now is the U.S. implementing these new chips making fraud nearly impossible?

J/M - Our Chase Sapphire card that we got before leaving was the first credit card we had with a chip.  We had heard about chip card being commonplace in Europe before, but we had never had our own chip card.  It now appears to be used in the US as well.

32.    MyChateau - Did you utilize bill pays and normal bank apps to pay bills due at home from wherever you were?

J/M - We have used auto pay for most of our bills for years now.  There was no difference for us while abroad as everything was deducted from our accounts as normal.  The only difference was we had to pay for a service to mow our lawn - for this, we gave our checkbook to Melissa’s dad to pay the service every month.

33.    MyChateau - As you made purchases along the way did you ship items home regularly?

J/M - Our mothers met us in Italy for 2 weeks (about halfway through our trip).  They became our free shipping service for the souvenirs we had accumulated up until that point.  Otherwise, Melissa and I became pretty efficient at packing bags, so we never had to ship anything home.  For example - we packed the following lamp (stock image, but ours is the same) in our luggage on the way home along with the rest of our clothes.

34.    MyChateau - Despite the fact you are under 40 did you create and/or update your J/M - ‘Will’ prior to leaving the states?

J/M - No, we did not create a will before leaving.  The thought had never occurred to us.  Our intention was to return from the trip alive :)

35.    MyChateau - Do you think European-World travel will continue to be part of your lives as you navigate the rest of your lives?

J/M - Yes.  We talk about doing a similar trip in South America in the coming years, and eventually in mainland Asia too.  We think the next exotic trip on our bucket-list is Cuba as the US is opening relations again.

EXTRA:    J/M - Random stories from our trip:

a.        We lost our passports and a credit card during the Tomatina (a big tomato food fight in Valencia).  We had to call the US embassy, cancel flights, take a train to Madrid, get emergency passports in the US embassy, and schedule new flights to our next destination.  The US embassy was awesome in providing us services to get everything replaced immediately, but it was a very stressful 24 hours.

b.        We missed out final connection into Chicago after being interrogated in US customs.  Apparently, you raise red flags when returning to the US from a 4 month trip on temporary passports, having recently visited Turkey, Israel, and Jordan, with large electronic objects in your luggage (a souvenir lamp).

c.        Our first night in Jerusalem was marked by two murders of Israeli Orthodox Jews by a Palestinian teenager.  The area had been peaceful the weeks leading up to our arrival, but after the stabbings there was a military presence throughout the old town.  The tourists disappeared the second day in response to the violence, except for our tour group that insisted we continue.  So, we ended up wandering through old-town Jerusalem with almost no tourists around us (except our group), military everywhere, and all of the shops closed.  Very unnerving.

d.       We visited Bethlehem with a tour group near the end of our trip.  Unbeknownst to us, Bethlehem falls under Palestinian territory.  So, to enter the city, you have to pass through a large security checkpoint with armed guards.  While entering, the motorcycle ahead of us was yelling at the sniper in the tower.  It was the first time in our life we had seen a sniper rifle aimed at a person during a tense situation.

e.        Jordan had random military checkpoints on the road.  As part of the tourist group you don’t have to stop at the checkpoints if you have travel police in your vehicle.  So, most tourist groups have a driver, a tourist guide, and a policeman in their vehicle as they drive around.