Pro Travel Tips: Never Ask If They Speak English

hello

helloI’ve been getting back into podcasts while driving, and have been catching up on the Alton Brown podcast. In the Samantha Brown episode, she shared a good tip about international travel and language barriers that I’ve never read in a guidebook: Never go around asking people if they speak English. Even if you say the question in their home language. Because when you say:

Do you speak English?

What they often hear is:

You speak English, DON’T YOU?

This comes off as a challenge, with the suggestion that you are expected to serve them. It starts off your conversation on the wrong foot. I know, I used to do it myself. You can see their face clench in a defensive manner.

The trick is to simply attempt your question in their home language (with a smile). Even if it is just “Hello” or “Excuse me” and then gibberish. They’ll be able to tell you don’t speak their language well. Most likely, they’ll even be able to figure out you speak English (even if you don’t think you look American) by your accent. Then if they do speak English, they’ll help you. If they don’t, they’ll still try to help you. People tend to be very nice in this regard. As Samantha Brown sums it up:

It’s better to butcher their language and show that you care, rather than speak perfectly in your own language and prove that you don’t.

For more pro travel tips check out Top 20 Hacks to Travel Like a Kiva Pro and How to Travel by Anthony Bourdain.

Book Review: Wide-Eyed Wanderers by Richard and Amanda Ligato

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wideeyedbookA couple of weeks ago I wrote about the non-traditional retirement story of Richard and Amanda Ligato, which was highlighted in a Nationwide Insurance commercial. Usually TV commercials are too busy convincing you to buy buy buy, so the idea that people who saved half their incomes were shown was amusing.

I ended up buying a copy of their book Wide-Eyed Wanderers: A Befuddling Journey from the Rat Race to the Roads of Latin America & Africa* which covers their journey through Mexico, South America, and Africa. For simplicity and frugality, they bought a 1978 Volkswagen camper-van and basically lived in it the entire trip, driving to all of their destinations (besides being shipped from Panama to Ecuador, and then Chile to South Africa). They cooked their own meals and slept nearly every night in the van.

The Ligato’s are one feisty couple. There are multiple stories about them being shaken down by police officers, customs officials, and other government workers for bribes and how they refused to pay any of them. (I think it helped that Amanda is a native speaker of Spanish.) In another incident, they actually tackled a woman who was trying to pickpocket them and ended up arrested in an Argentinian police station (they were eventually released). They weren’t as lucky when they reached the bottom of South American and tried to talk their way into a cheap ticket to Antarctica, as they ultimately had to give up as the price was too high.

Me being me, I wanted to learn more about the economics of how they saved, planned, and budgeted for their journey. Unfortunately, they really don’t cover this in the book. The topic is only mentioned briefly when they have to hang out with what you might call the “average American traveler”. For example, on the Inca Trail in Peru, they wrote about how a fellow hiker realized that the Ligatos had spent as much on their last 15 weeks coming through Mexico and into South America as she alone had spent on her 2-week packaged tour.

For the most part, the book consists of journal entries, each from a different town or city. The stories were nice, although as a whole I wouldn’t say the book was exceptionally funny (although there are light moments) or enthralling (although there are some exciting moments). What I’m trying to say is that they aren’t professional writers and you shouldn’t expect the humor of Bill Bryson or the romanticism of Peter Mayle. This is just a true journal of real people who had a life-changing journey that most people can only dream about.

I highlighted this quote from Rich Ligato, expressed while watching a ceremony to remember the dead in Patzcuaro, Mexico:

If I were to die now would I go without regret? Have I really lived? Unlike many of those who created these ancient traditions, I’ve been given the free will to choose my path. Have I?

If are reading this, it is likely that you have more freedom in your life than most. Books like this remind me to ask myself: Are you consciously living or just passively getting by?

* I bought a physical copy, but this title should also be included for free if you are part of the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library or Kindle Unlimited. It is self-published which is probably why I couldn’t find it at my library, but you could still check.

Rewards Dining Programs and Avoiding Airline Miles Expiration Policies

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stopwatch2As I am now a father of two in diapers and no longer an active traveler, I am again faced with the possible expiration of my frequent flier miles due to inactivity.

The easiest and cheapest way for me to keep my miles alive has been to using dining rewards programs that give me miles for eating at participating restaurants. You just link your existing credit card and pay with that credit card and it figures everything out for you – no embarrassing coupons, apps, or membership cards. Not all the food joints are great (this is basically paid advertising and the best places don’t need to advertise) but thankfully there is consistently a small overlap between participating merchants and places I usually eat at anyway. My $10 lunch fills the stomach and resets the clock on my 5 or 6-figure mileage balance (although you could buy something as little as a $1 bottle of water). Miles usually post within a few weeks; often faster.

Each separately branded program can have multiple credit cards linked to it, but any single credit card can only be linked with one program. (Hope that made sense. You can’t earn miles on two airlines on the same purchase.) However, you can change the linked cards as often as you like via website.

Be on the lookout for also various limited-time promotions for both new and existing members that may offer you more free points and miles. For example, below is a limited-time promotion offering new American Airlines Dining members 2,000 miles for spending $30+ at a participating restaurant and completing a short survey. At 1 to 2 cents value each, that 2,000 mile bonus is worth $20-$40 by itself. You can join each program and grab every bonus (one by one or simultaneously, if you have enough credit card numbers).

Here are all the airline mileage and hotel programs that are affiliated with Rewards Network (formerly iDine), along with their expiration policies:

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

American Airlines AAdvantage

Delta SkyMiles

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

Spirit Airlines

United Airlines MileagePlus

US Airways Dividend Miles

Hilton HHonors

International Hotel Group (IHG)

Quick Reference: Membership Rewards vs. Starwood Points vs. Chase Ultimate Rewards

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Due to birth of our first child, we haven’t been traveling much the last 24 months. However, I’ve still been racking up the miles (via credit card bonuses, credit card rewards, dining rewards, and shopping portals) and have built up a sizable pile with the three major “superpoints” programs – those that allow transfers to a variety of air and hotel partners. Everyone has their own preferred programs and unique travel needs, but here is a quick reference guide to simplify things. My favorite transfer partners are bolded, but all of the other options are also included. These days I’ll probably just be topping off an account off to qualify for an award ticket or free hotel night. Ratios are 1:1 unless otherwise noted.

Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) Points

  • United Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Hyatt
  • Korean Air
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Marriott
  • Ritz-Carlton
  • IHG Rewards Club
  • Amtrak

Credit card bonuses and rewards are the fastest way to jumpstart your miles balance. Here are related offers:

American Express Membership Rewards (MR) Points

[Read more...]

Flightfox – Complicated Flight Booking Without a Travel Agent

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Passenger air travel must have one of the most complicated, opaque pricing systems known to man. The price of a ticket depends on date of travel, date of booking, time of arrival, time of departure, one-way or roundtrip, how many seats are left, the price of oil, and who knows what else. I mean, this is an industry that overbooks on purpose because they gamble on how many people will miss their flight, and will start to charge for restroom access by the second any day now.

Sites like Travelocity and Expedia have made buying your own airfare much more simple, but if you’ve every tried to make a complicated booking with an extended layover, open jaw, multiple cities, or international transfers it’s still quite a maze. In the old days you’d ask a travel agent and hope they were good, but now you can ask the crowd at Flightfox.com. Thanks to reader Mike for the tip.

Simply enter your trip details and offer a bounty ($19 minimum) for the best flight booking in your own opinion. In addition to a low price, you may prefer a certain airline, have a lot of baggage, require no stopovers, or be willing to endure extra stopovers if it saves money. Ideally you’d choose the best option, pay the bounty, and walk away with a better result than you’d have gotten otherwise. If you don’t like any of the options, you owe nothing.

If you’re already a savvy frequent flier, then you can sign up and earn money as a Flight Expert deal finder. Flightfox takes 25% of the fee and you keep 75%. According to Techcrunch, about 5-10% are indeed moonlighting travel agents, and the rest are just well-versed travelers.

I definitely plan on trying this the next time I have a multi-city trip. Anyone use it yet?

Update: About to fly? Get 25% off Flightfox with this link!

Tingo: New Hotel Booking Website That Allows Price Drops

If you haven’t heard, Autoslash was a website that let you book car rentals and then re-booked you whenever they could find a better price via price drops or discount codes. It worked well for me in the past. Then the major car rental companies (which are really 3 huge companies with 10 different names) stopped allowing them to provide quotes. Things do not look good for them.

Tingo.com is a new site that wants to do basically the same thing but with hotel rooms. You book a room, and if there are future price drops, they’ll rebook the same room at the new lower price. It appears that you have to pay for the room upfront, and then future price drops are refunded to your credit card.

I like the idea, and I don’t see why you wouldn’t try them out if they give the same upfront rate as other big sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc. (I tried a few dates and places and Tingo did offer the same prices.) It would seem you have nothing to lose? But given what happened to AutoSlash, don’t be surprised if they receive a corporate smackdown as well. I do see that Tingo is a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, so maybe they have cleared this with the major hotel chains.

AutoSlash.com Review: My Car Rental Experience

I just got back from my trip to Orlando, where I tried the new car rental website AutoSlash.com to book, and previously wrote an introductory summary of their features. To briefly recap, the website takes advantage of a unique feature of car rental reservations to continuously check for lower prices over time and re-book you whenever there is a price drop.

Here is the price history of my one week rental of a mid-size car in April 2011 from Orlando International Airport (MCO). I later realized it included Good Friday and Easter weekend, which I think increased the demand of cars.

  • Day 1 – $665.61 including all taxes and fees, with Payless. This was really the lowest price I could find at the time across Kayak, Expedia, etc.
  • Day 2 – $346.18 with Dollar Rent A Car at .
  • Day 3 – $320.41 again with Dollar.
  • Day 38 – $273.68, final price with Dollar.

As you can see, there was a flurry of activity in the beginning, nothing for a long time, and then finally one last price drop at the end. This is only a theory, but I think that the folks behind Autoslash do a manual price search right after your rental reservation is first made, and again a week or so before your actual rental date. They are probably really good at finding the best price, perhaps they know some manual tricks that their automated scripts can’t replicate. Or, this is just a result of how the rental agencies vary their prices over time.

Regardless, I was really happy with my experience, and will use them again in the future. They found a better price than I could have found, with really zero effort on my part. Many of these rental agencies are clones of each other anyway. I picked up my car from Dollar with no issues with my special coupon code, and drove away in a huge Ford Crown Victoria with 9 miles on the odometer since that’s all they had left. I declined all additional insurance coverages from them, and returned it with no problems. This last part is more of a testament to that specific Dollar franchise, but it increases my confidence with places that aren’t Avis or Hertz.

British Airways 100k Miles Promo – Booking Award Tickets On American Airlines Using British Airways Miles

Update 5/6/11: The 100k mile card promotion is now expired. The information on using British Airways miles should still be accurate.

First, a quick reminder that the British Airways 100,000 mile promotion mentioned previously is scheduled to expire in less than two weeks on May 6th. To recap, the Chase British Airways Visa Signature card (expired) is offering 50,000 British Airways (BA) Executive Club miles for new cardmembers with first purchase, and another 50,000 BA miles after spending $2,500 within 3 months of opening, for a total of 100,000 miles.

There are many options on how to spend these points, for example we spent them on business class tickets to London and Rome. But to show the basic value of this offer, I looked into how to use British Airways miles to book award travel on American Airlines, their partner in the US. If American Airlines has a domestic award seat available in their “MileSAAver” category, then in general you can book it with British Air miles. A flight within the continental US costs 25,000 BA miles plus $5, with no fuel surcharges. (Other combinations of less miles and more cash are available, see below.)

If your flight is a direct flight with no stopovers, you can search and book an award online at BritishAirways.com. On the site, go to “Spending BA Miles” and then “Book with partner airlines” and then “Make a reward booking”. They always try to find BA flights first, but once you search for domestic flights, you’ll see this option to include partner airlines.

Here is a screenshot of an award I found from Los Angeles to Dallas/Ft. Worth for 25,000 miles + $5:


(click to enlarge)

Note that I can see the availability even if I don’t have enough miles to actually book it yet. Alternatively, you can book an American Airlines flight from the continental US to Hawaii for 35,000 + $5. Here is an award I found from Los Angeles to Honolulu during the summer for that amount:


(click to enlarge)

Of course, it’s better if you can book ahead of time for the best availability. If your flight has a stopover, you might want to look for award availability on the American Airlines website first and then call British Airways to book the award flight. Since you can’t find the airfare online through their search system, you can try asking them to waive their phone booking fee. Thus, with the 100,000 miles from this offer (plus $20 in fees), you could by four domestic round-trip tickets in the lower 48, or nearly three round trip tickets to Hawaii.

AutoSlash.com: Car Rental Price Search Engine

It’s always fun to find out new tools to save you time and money. Started by some regulars on the Flyertalk travel forum, AutoSlash.com is a website specifically made for car rentals. Yes, all the big guys like Expedia and Hotwire do car rentals. However, this one is a bit different.

First, you need to remember the unique quirk of car rental reservation systems. When you make a reservation at most car rental shops, you simply get a quote and make a non-binding reservation without giving any payment information. You can cancel at any time, without penalty. Heck, even if you just don’t show there is no penalty, besides the bad karma of knowing that you maybe messed up their inventory management for others.

Second, you add in the fact that for us deal-hunters, there can be hundreds combinations of discount codes, CDP numbers, and promotional codes that must be found to get the actual lowest rate on a rental. Autoslash uses computers to test out the codes in its database for you. The best part? It keeps checking every single day to see if it can get you a lower price. If it does, it automatically cancels your last reservation, books the new one for you, and sends you the new reservation code.

Last week, I was searching for a week-long rental in Orlando, FL next month. I checked the usual suspects like Expedia and was getting about $700 for a week-long rental of a mid-size car. Must be some huge event going on that weekend?! So I tried Autoslash.

  • Day 1 – I was bummed to see the lowest price was also $665.61 including all taxes and fees, with Payless.
  • Day 2 – I was rebooked on Dollar Rent A Car at $346.18.
  • Day 3 – I was rebooked again on Dollar for $320.41. Sweet!

The primary drawback that I can see is that they don’t support all the rental car agencies. Specifically, I did not see Avis or Budget in my comparison matrix. Also, the quality of their results depends on the quality of the coupon codes in their database. Basically, it may be possible to get a better deal on your own. However, given the fact that I can always cancel, AutoSlash does provides a very good baseline deal for almost zero work.

Hotel Bidding Tools For Hotwire.com and Priceline.com Travel

I’m working on planning our next travel adventure, and discovered a few new sites to help people navigate “opaque” hotel price engines Hotwire.com and Priceline.com. In my 5-Step Guide to Finding The Lowest Rate For Hotel Rooms, I outlined the benefits of using database sites like BiddingForTravel and BetterBidding to gather information from successful purchasers to remove some of the mystery. Hopefully, these will help you even further.

BidGoggles
With Hotwire, you know the price, but not the actual name of the hotel before you commit. A while back, I pointed out the ability to figure out the hidden hotels behind the price on Hotwire primarily using the number of TripAdvisor.com reviews shown. Shortly afterward, they removed that description. The job became harder, but BidGoggles attempts to use all the smaller clues given to you in order to do the same thing again. Here’s how it works.

You provide them with the following: Star rating, Country, State, City, and Subarea (Neighborhood). Then you match up the little logos that show you what amenities the hotel offers, such as a fitness room, swimming pool, or free breakfast. The results have been hit or miss with me, although I found that it helps if you omit a few amenities if you get no matches. Hopefully their database gets better with time, although the site seems to have slowed down development.

The Bidding Traveler
With the ‘Name Your Own Price’ feature of Priceline, you have to bid auction-style for the price of a room, in addition to only knowing the general neighborhood and star-rating of the hotel. So you have to decide how much to bid on any given hotel quality level, as well as having to deal with the rules of how you can bid again if you’re initial offer is rejected.

TheBiddingTraveler has you choose your hotel’s neighborhood (“zones”) along with the highest quality star-rating you want, and then provides you with some guidance as to what your starting bid and your final offer (the absolute highest price you’d be willing to pay). Recently rejected and accepted bids are provided, along with actual hotel names. Finally, the website actually walks you through the “optimal” bidding strategy, step-by-step.

The main downside I noticed was that some of the accepted bids are sparse for some cities and can be a bit old, so again the quality of the database is very important. Happy travels!

Added: You can save another 2% or more with cashback sites like eBates ($5 new customer bonus), Mr. Rebates ($5 bonus), and BigCrumbs.

Lonely Planet Offers 13 Free iPhone City Guides

In response to Snowpocalypse 2011, Lonely Planet has again made several of their iPhone City Guides free for download. 13 guides will be free in the iTunes App Store until to 6pm PST Friday, February 4th 2011.

Here are the cities: San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, Vancouver, Las Vegas, Miami, Toronto, Los Angeles, Montreal.

Hyatt Credit Card: Two Free Nights! List of Best Expensive Hotels To Use Free Stays At

Hyatt Regency Maui

Hyatt Credit CardThe Hyatt Credit Card by Chase offers you two Free Nights after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months from account opening. The upfront two Free Nights are valid at any Hyatt hotel or resort in the world! The free nights have no resort fees, no internet fees, no redemption fees. No foreign transaction fees for international purchases as well.

You will also receive an additional Hyatt Free Night Award each year on the anniversary of your account opening. The anniversary free nights are eligible for redemption at any category 1-4 Hyatt hotel or resort. There is a $75 annual fee.

You also get 3 Hyatt Gold Passport points for every $1 spent with your Hyatt Card at all Hyatt properties, 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points for every $1 spent at restaurants, on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline and at car rental agencies, and 1 Hyatt Gold Passport point for every $1 spent on purchases elsewhere.

If you have a free night at any Hyatt hotel, what should you do with it? I went over to Condé Nast Traveler’s Top Hotels and Travel+Leisure’s Top 500 Hotels, which helped me find these spots with sample rates from $300 to $900 a night: