• US State Department Services and Travel Alerts

    One service overseas travelers should take advantage of is the US Department of State. First off, the State Department offers its STEP program where a traveler signs up before they go on an overseas trip. State Department Step Program

    If there is some type of crisis in the country of destination, the State Department will contact you and recommend to you what steps you may need to take to stay safe and help with your evacuation if needed.

    Also, if you were to go missing for whatever reason, the State Department would have a record of your trip and your reported areas of stay. Your tax dollars pay for this service. It’s a smart move to use this service particularly if you are traveling to a third world country.

    During a crisis in a country, this is what the State Department says they will do.

    The actions we take depend on the nature of the crisis. In some instances, we may only need to provide information on conditions in the country, such as warning about areas of unrest, how and where to seek help, and other useful advice. In more serious situations, we may recommend that U.S. citizens leave the foreign country, and, if commercial transportation is not available, provide departure assistance, as our resources permit.

    Here is a link to a list of questions and answers by the US State Department.

  • Overseas Travel – How to Find Good Accommodations at a Deep Discount

    I have fine tuned the art of deep discount travel in overseas markets. There is a large industry out there that caters to travelers that want an accommodation as a secondary priority to the overall goals of an overseas trip. Not everyone needs nor will use ….. a concierge; a fancy lobby; a swimming pool; HD TV with 100s of channels; mini-bar in the room; etc. Many travelers spend as little time in their rooms as possible because the point of the trip is to get out, meet people, see the sights and experience the culture. Stephanie and I plan our day beforehand, get up early and explore all day before returning sometime that night. Who needs an expensive room when you use it sparingly?

    There are minimum criteria that I like to have when I travel, however. Here are the main ones that I look for.

    1. A safe location
    2. A room that is within walking distance to where the action is or at least within a short distance of public transportation such as the subway, train, bus system, street car, etc. Taxis are fine but I don’t like to depend on a taxi for every day excursion. A rental car where it makes sense, is fantastic. I plan to publish an article on renting vehicles overseas.
    3. A clean room and clean overall establishment
    4. Some type of gathering room or dining area where fellow travelers can meet and share stories.
    5. A host that can communicate with you in your language and help with getting around
    6. WiFi preferably that can be accessed from your room.

    If you plan to travel to a country whose primary language is foreign to you, #5 on the list is one of the most important. If you can find a translator or 2 at your accommodation that you can depend on and who is available during daylight hours into the early evening, this can make for a much more enjoyable and efficient trip.

    Our trip to Cairo, Egypt is a great example of this. The language in Egypt is Arabic. Therefore, unless you can speak Arabic, you may find it difficult to find your way around as the taxi drivers will not understand you. One solution is to hire a guide to go with you everywhere you go. This is ok for us for a day or two but after a while; you may get tired of the guide hanging out with you.

    Our preference is to find an accommodation that has staff that can translate and help you with planning your day, tours, taxis, etc. In Egypt, our host would write instructions in Arabic of where we wanted to go so that we could give it to the Taxi driver. Some of the drivers could read the instructions and immediately take us to where we wanted to go. If they did not know how to read it, they usually would call someone over to the cab to read it to them in Arabic. The point here is to make sure your accommodation can support you with translating the local language. This makes a tremendous amount of difference.

    There seems to be fallacies floating around about what someone should pay to get reasonable accommodations. In Alexandria, Egypt, for example, we stayed in a really cool high-rise overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for about $15 a night. A photo taken from the room is currently shown on the carousel on the front page of this website. In the adjacent high-rise, there was a big American hotel chain with rooms going for $200+ a night. People were paying for the perceived safety and the comfort zone of the big chain. The trick is to do your research and find the hidden gems.

    There are several web sites that I always check to find the best deep discount travel deals. I also look at high volume tourist sites just to get a baseline of what I am trying to beat and what the average tourist is paying. Some of the best places to stay never make it to the mainstream web sites due to the low number of rooms and the economics of the situation. Here are some sites that include many of the smaller mom and pop places along with some high traffic sites that I think could be a good resource.

    Hostelworld.com – You will be amazed at the “bang for the buck” you can get through this site. Don’t pay attention to the common tales of a) hostels are for students only; b) your only option is a group dorm setting; and c) hostels are unsafe. We have personally stayed at many places advertised on hostelworld.com and found many of them just as nice and as safe as other rooms that cost three times as much. There are plenty of deals out there that include private room and bath. The trick is to review the traveler’s comments and ratings. If you find a highly rated site with over say twenty reviews, then you usually can count on it being a good buy.

    HostelZ.com – This is another hostel type site that can show you less expensive hostels, small Inns and guest homes that may not be found on the large tourist web sites.

    Priceline.com – I have not used Priceline in years but some people swear by it. If you want to hedge your bet and go with a more mainstream hotel chain at a discount price, try the priceline site. Be careful though. I have booked through this site and then found that the price at the hotel was cheaper.

    Tripadvisor.com – The reason I like tripadvisor is that it has so many people who follow it and contribute. It is a main stream site but the sheer numbers of travelers who post can give you a very good idea of what a hotel is like and help you find bargains.

    VRBO.com – If you can get a group of people together, then Vacation Rental by Owner is worth taking a look at. You can book fabulous multi-bedroom homes & condos for a deep discount off what you might otherwise pay for a resort or hotel. It is fun just to go on the site and look around at the variety that is available directly from owners. I had great success years ago booking a one week stay in the St. Germaine section of Paris and have heard of a lot of good stories over the years.

    Bedandbreakfast.com – Bed and Breakfast Inns can offer excellent value and are usually not covered by the big travel agency web sites. This web site has enough traffic that often there are enough reviews by travelers to give you a good idea what to expect.

    We use web sites like these to narrow down the possibilities. We then research further based on the six criteria I listed earlier to make a decision. We rely heavily on the reviews by previous travelers. Just make sure that there are enough reviews. Bogus reviews have been known to happen. If you see the majority of reviews done the same week, beware!

    Blake Burgess
    January 28, 2014

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  • Packing Light for Overseas Travel Female Perspective

    What to wear has always been an issue for me, especially when traveling. I typically google “what to wear in………..” before a trip, however after traveling to several countries I have found that if you wear what you are comfortable in, then that outfit is always appropriate. Some countries are more conservative than others and it would be more appropriate to ensure you are covered up to avoid offending anyone. I am not a “girly girl” so I typically wear shorts or cargo pants paired with a simple shirt. I always take long sleeve cotton shirts and wear in more conservative areas, but they also come in handy to avoid the sun. We typically backpack so the less clothes the better. Typically, where ever we backpack is warm and I pack:
    3 long sleeve thin cotton shirts
    2 bras
    3 cargo pants northface.com
    3 shirts
    1 pair p’js
    Keen sandals (wear these everywhere and you don’t have to pack socks) zappos.com
    1 pair flip flops
    1 north face waterproof jacket northface.com

    Blake and I enjoy dining with the locals so packing simple clothes are appropriate and displays that we are simple backpackers and not carrying a lot to steal. We are aware that wherever we go, we will stand out from the norm, but we want to be safe and not portray ourselves as “wealthy americans”. We take our clothes on the 3rd or 4th day of a trip to a local laundry facility or do it ourselves in the sink. We have a portable clothes line that can be used to dry clothes in the room. This assists with packing less clothes. As you can see from the list below, I do not take makeup with me with the exception of mascara. Often hotels have hair dryers. Most hostels or guest houses do not. Typically I just let my hair dry naturally. I have been known not to take a hairbrush and let my hair do what it wants. That’s part of the experience – enjoying the environment instead of worrying how I look.

    I also pack these items:
    Small LED Flashlight
    Foldable water bottles
    My Surface w/charger
    Camera w/ extra batteries and chargers
    Travel journal
    Inflatable head pillow for plane
    Dramamine, medication
    Bacteria soap
    Face wipes
    Sun screen
    Quest bars (questbars.com)
    Travel toothbrush/paste

    Recently, we started purchasing books (amazon.com) on the specific area that we are visiting, and this is what I read. We are so busy walking and exploring, we don’t read much, but I do enjoy reading about the people and the area we are visiting.

    For countries where fashion is more important, like London and Lisbon Portugal, we did not backpack. Checking luggage replaces backpacking and therefore, taking more formal clothing. We enjoy backpacking and visiting less fashion formal areas now and will visit the more fashion formal areas in time, when backpacking has run its course for us.

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  • How to Find Deep Discount Airline Tickets

    Often the most expensive aspect of an overseas trip will be the airline tickets. However, there are deals out there where you can save significant dollars if you put in the effort to find them. With a little practice, you can significantly undercut what a travel agency could do for you and save 25% to 50% over what you might otherwise spend

    Many travelers have a fondness for one airline or another. I am always amazed at the sometimes cult like following of Southwest Airlines for example. My thought is that an airline flight is a commodity service and the best price wins within reason. If prices are essentially equal (i.e. + or – 3%) and the travel times are roughly equal, I will go with the airline that I have had the best experiences with. However, reflecting back over the years, I can’t remember one adventure travel trip where I looked back and said “that airline flight sure was spectacular” or “that plane flight really soured the whole trip”.

    We try to avoid really early flights and overnight flights. The going advice by the airlines for international travel is to be at the airport 3 hours prior to departure. For an international trip that departs at 6 AM, this means you would need to get out of bed at 1 AM to 2 AM to get to the airport on time. It’s almost like why even bother going to sleep. airportHowever, often you have no other choice or at least the alternatives are 20% or more in a higher fare. In that case, you bite the bullet and go with the best price.

    Approach the flight with optimism and as part of the adventure. If you have an exceptionally long flight, be prepared with all the best traveler carry-ons to entertain you and keep you comfortable along the way (a future blog topic btw).
    During our 20 hour flight to Vietnam, I read an entire novel for example. Make sure it is a really good one and you won’t worry about being stuck on the plane for so long.
    Ok, on to the main topic. How do you set yourself up for major discounted tickets? Here is my proven method.

    Find Out the Average Price for a Fare to Your Chosen Destination

    When we identify a city we want to travel to, I will first go to a couple of the main stream travel agency sites that usually offer “rack rate” tickets. This is to set a baseline price of what I want to try and beat. It may also tell me to wait on this trip until the flights are more affordable so this is a good screening exercise to see what you can afford. I tend to check out Orbitz.com and Expedia.com as well as directly searching the major airlines webpages. Surprisingly, some of the lower prices can be obtained directly from the airline so I go to delta.com, united.com, etc. to check prices. Of course, pick the airlines that serves your local city.

    I will look at different days of travel and try to zero in on days of travel that offer the best price but also are convenient to our schedule. Here are some general rules of thumb.

    Know the Best Times to Fly for Discount PricesCalendar

    1. The typical scuttlebutt in the travel industry is to depart on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday and stay over at least one Saturday. Fridays and Sundays are often the busiest and most expensive days.
    2. There tends to be a drop in prices right after the holidays. So if you can adjust your vacation and travel schedule by working during the times when most people want off and then traveling later, this might be a good strategy to get cheap tickets.
    3. We often travel in January or February since the ticket prices tend to be better and the number of tourists is much less.
    4. From what I have read and confirmed by my personal experience, Tuesday is a good day to shop for discount fares because a lot of them come out that day. In fact, many travel professionals recommend checking all day starting early Tuesday throughout the day.

    Use Travel Alerts

    Many travel web sites have an alert feature that emails, tweets or sends text alerts to give you price alerts for fares that are within your price range. Airfarewatchdog.com is one of my favorites because it is an easy to navigate web site that allows you to set up multiple searches and alerts for discount travel to the cities you want to track. computers On the day of this article, December 23, 2013 the site advertised roundtrip airfare from Charleston, SC to Dublin, Ireland for $756! Since Charleston is not a hub for a major airline, this is a really good price and is something you normally might find out of Atlanta or New York but not little Charleston.

    Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity are three among many that have some type of discount fare program where you can sign up for alerts. I recommend signing up for alerts at several of these sites and be prepared to pull the trigger if you find something at or below your target price.

    If you don’t have a specific destination in mind, sign up for general alerts that depart from your home airport. These often are separated into national and international travel. It can be a heck of a lot of fun to find a great deal in your inbox and then book it for a flight the coming week. Airfarewatchdog.com 3 days ago had a low fare alert in my inbox for flights from Charleston to Boston for $150 for example.

    How to Book Deep Discount Tickets on Short Notice

    Like a lot of people, I believe spontaneity is half the fun in planning a trip. Therefore, a lot of our travel is booked by sitting down one evening with a bottle of good vino and planning out the trip and just going for it.

    With so many travel sites and so many options, aggregator sites began appearing in the mainstream 3 or 4 years ago to meet a need. These are travel web sites that search many other web sites for the best deals. Kayak is one of the better known aggregator travel web sites and is the one I use most often. kayak-logo
    It searches many of the larger online travel agencies and allows you to check off and search many of the so called “discount sites”. For example, while writing this article, I went to Kayak and typed in a search for Charleston, SC (our home airport) to Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg is a large city with a lot of air traffic but is on the other side of the world and south of the equator so it is a good test run to use as an example. I did this search on December 23, 2013 and asked for travel dates for a couple of weeks out on Tuesday January 7, 2014 to Friday January 17, 2014. For this example, I checked all the different travel agency options on the site. Here were the results based on a per person price.

    Kayak – $1724 combined flights from American Airlines, British Airlines and American Eagle
    Webjet – no flights available
    FareBoom – $1668 using the same airlines as Kayak
    Expedia – no flights available but suggested we adjust our flight by one day here and there
    Priceline – $1495 which combined Jetblue and British Airways
    If I had bought tickets on this day, and gone with the lowest fare I would have saved $458 for two travelers by going with the Priceline tickets. Priceline is a great source to find short term deals if you really want to be spontaneous. They are known to cut deals with airlines to fill seats that otherwise would not be filled.

    For the fun of it, I set a travel alert on Kayak on the evening of December 23rd to notify me of tickets for the Charleston to Johannesburg route under $1500. About 12 hours later, I got an email notification that gave me two deals. One was for $1165 per ticket in March. The second was for $1195 per ticket within a day or two of my specified departure and return dates. Wow! That is starting to get my attention.

    Another great tool that Kayak offers is the ability to search for flights that are + or – 3 days from the departure date and the return date. This allows you to find the best fares with a few days variable.

    Other sites do this as well so keep your head up when searching. So if you have some flexibility, then by all means use this tool as there can be some significant savings. These airline search engines are truly amazing. Kayak claimed that they searched 1429 flights to find the cheapest fare from Charleston to Johannesburg.
    Another widely used aggregator site is by google and is known as its ITA software. Why not, google does about everything else so why not travel. Shortly after running the search on the Kayak web site for the Charleston to Johannesburg trip, I ran a similar search on the Google ITA site to get a comparison. Unfortunately Google was having an off day. Thirty minutes after initiating the search, it was still churning away with no results.

    Using Frequent Flyer Type Programs

    Most of the major airlines have frequent flyer programs. Sign up for every one of them that you have even a remote chance of flying on. In the last 12 months, we have both flown virtually free to Ecuador and a free ticket each to Lisbon, Portugal on frequent flyer programs. One of the best strategies is to find a credit card program that gives you at least 1 mile for each dollar spent. Some cards have promotional programs where you will start out with a bonus of 25,000 miles for example. Keep a look out for these type programs when you are starting out.

    I run every expense that I possibly can through two frequent flyer credit cards and then pay off the cards 100% each month. Just make sure the bank does not charge you a minimum fee or interest if you pay it off in full each month and keep a sharp eye on them because banks are famous for changing the rules. Miles can add up quickly.

    There are plenty of restrictions on using miles so be prepared to plan ahead or travel off the beaten path. Don’t expect to use miles to book anytime you want and to the trendy tourist areas. Since, we tend to look at the less traveled areas and travel in off periods of the year, these programs work well for us.

    Summary of My Discount Search Strategy

    1. Review the mainstream travel agency sites and airline sites to get a feel for the rack rate for tickets to your chosen destination. This can give you an idea as to how affordable a trip will be and also give you a starting point to begin your discount travel search.
    2. Sign up on a number of sights for fare alerts. For example, you could set your target price 25% to 30% or more below what you believe the average price to be. Be ready to act if a great deal comes through.
    3. Use a discount travel agency site known as an aggregator that searches multiple sites to find the best deals. If you have flexibility for travel dates, specify that in your searches.
    4. Use Frequent Flyer type programs to qualify for free to deeply discounted tickets.

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  • How to Deal with Unfortunate Incidents While Traveling

    Lost Wallet While Traveling
    While traveling in Lisbon, Portugual, we were taking a cab ride to the Feira Da Ladra flea market. I was so excited to visit and purchase souveneirs at local prices. The market is only open on Tuesday and Saturday’s so we decided the night before to go. So we took the short taxi ride to the market, got out of the cab and I quickly noticed that Blake didn’t have his wallet. He immediately yelled “go after the cab” and I ran!! Unfortunately, the cab turned right and by the time I turned right, the cab was nowhere in sight. We returned to the hotel. The hotel stated that if the wallet was turned in, they would contact Blake. They never did. Blake immediately contacted American Express to wire monies to the Western Union which was a block from our hotel. American ExpressIn the meantime, he pulled out his flash drive which had all his credit cards customer service numbers and account numbers and canceled his cards. This took about 30 minutes. I was so upset because my ATM card would not work due to the magnetic strip haven been stripped and in Portugal, they do not accept “American cards” (American Express). Observing Blake handle all his cards and traveling with this information was impressive!! He finished and we walked to the Western Union and retrieved the money sent by American Express. I finally located an ATM that could read my ATM card so it all worked it. The worst happened and Blake was prepared. I would never have thought of having a password protected flash drive with this information. I highly suggest this!

    Injury While Traveling
    No one anticipates getting hurt or having an accident while traveling. While in Cairo, Egypt, we were walking back from a street restaurant, and I tripped in a bad spot on the sidewalk. I fell on my face. I remember asking Blake to let me lie there for a minute because I was not coherent. Within several minutes, two people grabbed an arm and lifted me up. My face felt like it was burning and possibly skin ribbed off. Blake and a barber (we were in front of a barber shop) lifted me up and the barber moved a chair outside for me. I sat and they both stared at my face while asking if I were okay. Stephanie After Fall The barber brought out a damp cloth and dabbed my face and told me to hold the cloth on my face. I sat in a daze for what seemed forever. I assured them I was okay and we thanked the kind local and left. His face will always be remembered due to his spontaneous kindness. He didn’t speak English, but we all seemed to communicate with each other. My face was red and beginning to scab. While walking around Cairo, we were looking for a pharmacy. A woman who walked by us, gestured that we should follow her. She took us to a pharmacy where she worked. She pulled a tube of gel out of the glass case and indicated that we should purchase it. We did. My face immediately began to scab and with the gel, the scabs did not leave a scar. Regardless of where we are, I find people are people and genuinely want to help. My face did look bad! Pharmacies are in every town and items needed can be found. I typically purchase more face wipes (due to heat) in every city.
    We have been fortunate to never have our luggage lost. We do typically back pack and do not check the back packs so it’s quicker for us and less likely the luggage is lost. We thought my backpack was lost in Quayquil, Ecuador for about 15 minutes. I didn’t have anything in it, except clothes. For a female backpacking, this is no big deal and a great excuse to go shopping. However, the luggage was brought to us about 15 minutes later. I was relieved and saddened at the same time. Our technology and important items, always stay with us in our carry ons.

    Don’t Forget the Visa
    We arrived at Ho Chin Ming, Vietnam airport and were extremely tired after a 20 hour flight. We followed the people to a long line and realized that the line was to show your visa. Well, Blake and I both somehow missed the fact that the visa was a preapproved letter from their government stating we had permission to enter the country. In fact, a representative from Delta Airlines told us no visa was needed at all. We were told there was nothing they could do. AirportPeople around us, listening to the issue, were commenting how they couldn’t believe we didn’t know about the letter. Blake told the official that we would just go to Bangkok if there was nothing we could do and spend our money there. Another official then stepped in and stated that we could pay him $100 and he could get us a Visa as a package with a tourist group and bring us the Visa letter to the hotel the next day. Blake agreed on the condition that we stay in the hotel we already had confirmed reservations. He would not take a copy of our passport and insisted on the originals. We took the risk and gave him the passports and kept copies (in hindsight, I don’t recommend this). We were told not to leave the hotel since we did not have our passports. We arrived at the hotel and worried. We did walk around the area of the hotel, but stayed close. The official did arrive with our passports and Visa letter. Of course, we were relieved and learned a great lesson!
    While traveling home from Vietnam and going through security in Bangkok, Blake took off his wedding ring and placed with his wallet and other personal items. We were close to our gate when he realized he left his ring. I of course, questioned why he had to take it off since I don’t take off my rings or watch and have never had a problem. He stated that it was probably already stolen and we should catch our flight. I strongly demanded that he at least try to locate the item and return to the security area and ask. He did and returned with the ring on his hand. He told me he had to walk about 2 miles to the other end of the very large airport to get to the lost and found department. He was given a special pass to do this and avoided going through the security again. We were both amazed that the Thai security was so honest. I have learned to never underestimate people when traveling. While in Vietnam, and all other places we have been, we have always been treated kindly. Here in Charleston, when I notice someone traveling to explore this area, I do try to repay the kindness that has been bestowed to us.

    Know the Local Regulations
    While in Costa Rica, we spent a fabulous day shell hunting. We were the only people on this local beach and it was a beautiful magnificent day. Beach steph and Blake We spent the entire day shell hunting and enjoying the scenery. When leaving Costa Rica, I had placed all the unique shells in my carryon backpack. Unfortunately, I had no idea that we could not take shells out of Costa Rica. How did I miss this on the internet?? Lesson learned again – do more research about the laws of the areas. I will never forget how the Costa Rican security guard looked at me.

    Unusual Security
    While traveling in Nicargua, Blake heard of a fantastic surfer beach. We rode around for awhile with his rented surf board and finally found the infamous beach. Unfortunately, the beach was gated. We didn’t understand what the guard was telling us, although there was a sign in English stating the minimal cost of about $2 USD. We paid the guy and he then jumped into the back of our pickup truck. We didn’t understand and decided that we should not be worried and that he probably needed a ride to the beach. We kept going. It was like driving on a country road where no destination was in site. The dense area was nothing like we had ever seen. The roads in Nicaragua just disappear and then you are driving in a shallow stream and have to decide whether to continue or turn around. We decided the truck could handle the situation. About this time we noticed that the guy in the back of the truck had a machine gun hanging from his hip.machete guys We did discuss how ridiculous it was that we were not fluent in Spanish and how we got into this situation and since we did, we just needed to stop worrying and go with it. After what seemed like miles in a dense wooded area, we arrived to a very open secluded oasis. The machine gun carrying guy jumped out of the back of the truck and entered an employee working area. We left the truck with Blakes rented surf board and walked to the beach bar for a cerveza. After the drive, we needed several. The bartender explained that the machine gun escort was for our own protection. It was a private beach, but locals do go into the dense forest and place trees on the road to stop the vechicles. Once a person leaves the vechicle to remove the tree from the road, the banditos would surprise the people and rob them. We were then thankful the guy rode with us. On the way from the beach, a guy with a machete rode with us. He did allow us to take a photo of him. This situation was probably the time we felt most unsafe during any of our travels. Although it is a reflection of unsafety, the scenery and memory of the experience and beach was well worth it.

    Blake Burgess
    January 3, 2013

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