I’ve traveled a decent amount in the last few years. During this time I’ve learned a few things that I find useful whenever I’m planning a trip, packing for a trip, or on a trip.

Travel Hacking

The most surprising thing to other folks when I talk about traveling is Travel Hacking. Travel Hacking is the process of using airline reward programs to travel for cheap or free. It takes a bit of work, but the ideas are pretty basic. If you are focused and willing, travel can cost much less than you might expect.

This should be a separate post maybe. Whenever I travel internationally I try to use Airline Miles® to cover the cost of the flights. Frequent flyer miles are worth more when used internationally than when used domestically. Thus it makes more sense to use award miles for long international flights than for shorter domestic flights. Much is written about travel hacking already, so I won’t go into too much detail, but for now the synopsis is that I gather airlines’ frequent flyer miles through credit card signup bonuses and use them to fly. This is generally a very high value use of time for money. I recently flew first class to South America on miles which would have costed around $4000 dollars, but instead it was nearly free (around ~$200 in airport taxes and a change fee).

You can read more about travel hacking on Chris Guillebeau’s site or if enough people post questions in the comments I might make my one post.

Choosing Flights (and Stopovers)

I choose flights by fewest connections. I’d rather spend a while in one airport than have to move through many. This also limits the possibility of checked bags to get lost. But who checks bags anyways… But I also value the overall travel time of flights. I also keep an eye out for flights that go through cities that are interesting. A recent trip from Portland, Oregon to Buenos Aires, Argentina involved a flight going through Mexico City. I was able to take a “stopover” in Mexico City. A stopover is where rather than catching your next flight in a connection city, you catch the next flight a few days later. I spent three days in Mexico City before continuing south to Buenos Aires. It depends on the airline, but for me stopping over in Mexico City incurred no extra fees.

Packing

Pack light. Unless you’re staying in one place for a long time at the end of your trip. I very much appreciated having everything I brought fit into my carry-on size backpack and weigh no more than 20lbs when I was backpacking around and staying in hostels. However, at the end of my trip in South America I spent two months in one apartment in Chile and would have enjoyed a few more peices of clothing. But having all of your stuff fit in a carry-on is wonderful. No possibility for lost baggage and much speedier airport entry and exit.

When packing think about what you really need and what you think would be nice to have. If you are struggling to understand why packing light matters, go backpacking with a heavy bag to remember.

Details of what I brought to South America:

Clothing

Choosing Hostels

I was travelling solo so I preferred to stay in hostels where I would meet other travellers. I went on day trips with these hostel-mates; I shared dinner with these folks (often cooking at hostel kitchens); and most importantly I gathered intel on what to do in each location from those who had already spent a few days exploring. Simply put, I highly recommend staying in hostels. I had a copy of Lonely Planet and would go for the recommended hostels. These are a bit (read: a few dollars) more expensive than the cheapest hostels, but I found it worth it. A good experience in a hostel was far worth an extra five dollars per night.

I stayed in dorms (one room with multiple beds (often bunk beds) that you share with strangers). These are the cheapest but I didn’t mind after the insertion of earplugs and application of a sleeping mask.

So what’s the five dollar difference between hostels? Well, when I made some last minute plans and the preferred hostel was fully booked I arrived late at another hostel. The fellow at the front desk gave me a sheet and told me to go across the road to another building and a room number. That was it. I went across and while trying to be quiet at 1am had to 1) figure out which bed was available 2) make the bed on an upper bunk while trying not to disturb the sleeper below on the lower bunk. 3) And breakfast wasn’t included.

Now just down the road, where I had a reservation for the following night was a cozy hostel where the dorm beds where numbered, the beds were already made, and there was free breakfast included. Additionally, the front desk was very helpful and nice about helping with info and making travel plans. So worth it! Go with the better hostel! Often these are more local, family owned, so the people working there actually care about the service they are offering. Also, non-party hostels will be much cleaner. I prefer to go the party rather than having the party come to me. If you plan to inebriate to point of not being able to travel a long distance home, having the party be where you also sleep may be more convenient.

AirBnB

I didn’t have great experiences with AirBnB in South America. It is a great, cheaper alternative to a hotel but since it is run by the people, you have to trust the people to be responsive. I was traveling with two others and we arrived at our AirBnB to find that the host was not there, was not responsive, and we couldn’t get it. That wasn’t fun.

Safety and Precautions passport copies

Always have a copy of your passport online somewhere you remember the password. This can be in your Dropbox if you are sure you will always remember your Dropbox password, or in your email inbox (email a copy to yourself). Either way, if you lose your passport, a copy of it will be extremely helpful! Internet cafes with printers are much more ubiquitous than embassies.

Money and Credit Cards

I don’t like fees, and these days you can easily get money out in foreign countries without paying extra. A few different banks offer online checking accounts with free, international ATM withdrawls. I use Charles Schwab for this. They send you a debit card where you setup a PIN and you can transfer money from your normal bank into this account and pull out money with zero fees internationally. (They refund the fees from the ATM afterwards.)

There are also many credit cards (at least in the U.S.A.) which have zero foreign transaction fees. In the past, when you used a credit/debit card abroad you’d be charged a 1-2% fee after the normal exchange rate was assessed from your home currency to the local currency. But now there are many cards that do not have this fee. Get one of those cards. Then you can easily use a credit card abroad without any extra fees. That’s easy.

I also bring a chunk of cash in case of emergencies. These days it’s hard to go wrong with clean, new, fresh Made-In-America $100 bills. A few of those will hidden away is a nice backup plan.

Visas

Sadly, not all citizenships (and their passports) are equal. Check out the visa situation for your given passport online. There are a few different types of visas.

  1. Visa on Arrival: this is the easy kind, you just show up, get off the plan, and they stamp your passport and let you in. Often this is good for 90 days of visiting, but sometimes different lengths.
  2. Visa from Embassy: sometimes you need to go to an embassy/consulate either in person (or just send in your passport) and get a visa placed in the passport before leaving for the country. This can require anywhere from some to a huge amount of paperwork.

Also, there are sometimes fees associated with visas. These can depend on each country. Americans traveling to Argentina receive a Visa on Arrival, but need to pay a reciprocity fee of $160 prior to boarding the plane. However, I have dual citizenship (German) and Germans do not have to pay a reciprocity fee. So by using my German passport I was able to save $160 since I looked up the logistics beforehand. A few minutes of research can save money!

Electronics

WiFi is everywhere. Bringing device(s) that connect easily to it are extremely useful/necessary for making travel plans as you go along. I like to bring my laptop and phone with me as I travel. Both have power adapters that accept a range of currents so all I need to charge them in foreign countries is a cheap, light, little adapter. Some electronics don’t accept the variable voltage and need exactly 110 which means you need a expensive, heavy, big converter. Those suck. I don’t like them. Boo! However, if you use the wrong power you can burn out the device. Once I fried an electric toothbrush by just using an adapter, when I actually needed a converter.

Cell phone service

As most people know these days, using a cell phone abroad is very expensive. However, this isn’t always the case. If you’re using Verizon or AT&T plans from the USA, then yes. But some carriers don’t charge these crazy fees. T-Mobile just announced an international plan that comes free with almost all of their normal plans that allows for free texting and 3G data use. This can be spotty and slow at times, but other times it is enough to show you where you are on a Google Map which is very helpful. Also the free texting allows you to send short updates to folks back home. And if you need to make calls with T-Mobile its like $0.20 per minute so not cheap but not terrible either. Do your research and you can not get into that bad place where you return home to a $1,000 phone bill.

Lounges

Airline lounges can be nice. You can buy your way in (thumbs down) or you can get in for free with a free entrance voucher (thumbs up). These sometimes come as benefits with credit cards or other ways. On my most recent flight back to USA from South America I stayed in the American Airlines lounge which had a full shower room. I took a nice, refreshing shower during my layover. I recommend it.

Food

When traveling and trying to pinch pennies you must make the tradeoff between the value you get for the cost (either money cost or time cost.) One of the tragic mistakes I’ve made in the past is being overall stingy with regards to food and therefore missing out on really great food. I think it’s better to spend a tad more and go to really delicious places sometimes if you enjoy good food - which I do.

Transportation

I really like taking public transport. It is more tricky than just grabbing a taxi, but you get a much better feel for a city. And I like the adventure!

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